Reflections on Writing “The Story of Henry the Third…etc”

critical reviewHaving received some very lovely feedback from friends for my second short story, I thought that, once again, I would share some of my thoughts and observations on the writing process I undertook. If you have not read “The Story of Henry the Third and the Midwinter Miracle in Manchester”  then click the link or scroll down to the previous post to read it first and avoid any spoilers.

When I decided to write a Christmas story, I knew that I wanted to include some of the traditional seasonal themes such as kindness, charity, the importance of family and love, renewed hope and a touch of magic. How to do this in an original and engaging way was more of a challenge…

The Inspiration

This was the easy bit. The setting was very much inspired by my own recent experience, working in the centre of Manchester again after 13 years in various out of town campuses. I was shocked to realise that there are still so many homeless people on the streets because my infrequent trips into town, during the period I worked elsewhere, were to the main shopping areas or busy bars, restaurants and theatres etc and not through the side streets and back alleys that I had used regularly as a daily commuter. As the weather became colder at the back end of November and early December, I pondered every morning on how the huddled bodies I saw in doorways coped in such cold conditions and who they were; what was their own story and history? I wanted to prompt the reader to think a little more about the human being behind the Big Issue.

The Characters

Debbie’s lifestyle, curiosity about people and her empathy are mine, so she was very easy to write. I hasten to add that my own family circumstances are quite different  (my Mum is alive and well thank you very much and I am a mother myself) but she basically speaks with my voice. In fact I’m wondering now if I should have written her in the first person…hmmm – that’s a future consideration.

I always imagined Henry the Third as looking and behaving like Eddie the whiskery Jack Russell in Frasier. eddieI wanted him to be friendly but not overly excitable, small so that he could be carried, loyal, protective and intelligent. Although he is of course crucial to the plot, he has no self awareness and is simply doing what dogs do, so there was no need to give him much depth of character. I’m still rather fond of him though.

 

Pam the dog lady was a little trickier to create. I wanted a homeless woman rather than a man, as I thought it would be easier to believe that Debbie would converse with a mysterious woman than a strange man. The resemblance to her Mum was included to make her even more approachable and attractive. Her letter at the end was deliberately written in a style to show that despite her lifestyle, she was intelligent, articulate and kind.

The peripheral male characters, Dad, Mark and Jon are, I admit, sparsely drawn but hopefully realistic enough to serve their purpose of moving the story along and/or the exposition of relevant past events.

The Plot

In my early musings about the plot I contemplated making Pam the long lost mother, returned to help the daughter she had abandoned.  But this seemed too bleak and emotionally complicated – forgiveness and redemption would be more difficult to dispense for someone who left  a young family, to live on the streets.  I also considered turning her into the mother’s ghost, but it would not have made sense to have had three life-saving events as both Dad and Mark would have recognised their wife/mother at the time of their own salvation.  This was also why Pam herself did not openly act as Guardian Angel and why I employed a succession of dogs to help save the Moffats. It seemed more believable that they would not have made a big deal of it at the time if individually they had thought that a dog had somehow stopped helped them.   And I liked the sound of “Henry the Third” as a name!

I hesitated for a long time as to whether to include Debbie’s childlessness in the story at all, but I wanted something else to make the dog lady mysterious and magical and to add a final little twist to the tail. It seemed like a good way to round off the story; Pam dies, somehow knowing that Henry the Third saved not only Debbie but her longed for  unborn child. It is almost like her parting Christmas gift.

I thoroughly enjoyed engineering this story and have been delighted with the emotional impact it has had on some of my readers. It’s the greatest compliment I could wish for. Not entirely sure what I’m going to write next but will endeavour to entertain you again.

Happy New Year!

P.S. If you are feeling generous or inspired then I recommend you make a donation to either of these two UK homeless charities.

http://www.crisis.org.uk/pages/support-us.html

or

http://england.shelter.org.uk/

 

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The Story of Henry the Third and the Midwinter Miracle in Manchester

HomelessIt was the small dog which first caught her eye that early Tuesday morning in December. Snuggled up next to a homeless person in a grubby blue sleeping bag, sheltering in the doorway of a service entrance to the multi-storey car park. As she approached, quick marching on her way to work, he had raised his grey whiskered chin from his paws to look at her, yawned, sleepily wagged his tail and gave a very quiet, gentle “woof” in greeting.  He had settled back down to rest but maintained eye contact with her as she passed the doorway before cutting diagonally across the road towards the office.

She had noticed him because he reminded her of Harry,  the scruffy little terrier that Dad had brought home the first Christmas after Mum had died. He had  found him  tied to a railing near the canal, shivering and whining and with a message scribbled on a piece of cardboard next to him reading “please take care of me”.  She and her elder brother Mark had adored him from the start and their Dad did not have the heart to take him to the dogs home as he’d originally intended, so Harry became the family pet and lived to a ripe old age. Debbie was convinced that it was Harry’s arrival which had saved her Dad from disintegrating altogether, after months of sadness and the prospect of their first Christmas as a one parent family.

She gave one last look over her shoulder at the stray in the doorway before turning the corner and then suddenly felt guilty that she had barely given a thought to the person in the sleeping bag.  An open umbrella had been positioned in front of their head and shoulders to act as a windbreak against the chill north easterly blowing down the street, and this had hidden any indication of age or gender.  They had been just another anonymous down and out. Debbie had not felt particularly well when she’d woken up that morning but she dismissed her self-pity when she thought of how rough she would really feel after a night on the street.

Working in the city years before, Debbie had gotten used to seeing homeless people in doorways and on street corners, but after fifteen years of commuting to out of town business parks, she had almost forgotten that they existed. They were largely invisible on her occasional shopping trips into town and she had naively thought that it was a problem which was disappearing with the increased prosperity of her home city. When she started her new job back in the centre of Manchester a few weeks before, it had been a shock to realise that  there were still so many people living on the streets. The two recessed doorways next to the multi-storey were obviously a prime location to shelter in, as hardly a morning went by without seeing someone lying there on a pitiful mattress of flattened cardboard. The wooden louvre doors had  “Danger, High Voltage” signs on them and she assumed that perhaps there was some residual heat from a generator escaping through the gaps. She rarely saw the faces of the occupants. This early in the morning they were hunkered down and whenever she had ventured out of the office during the day, or on her journey home in the evenings,  the doorways were empty of people. Often they would leave behind a few paltry possessions, a water bottle, a folded umbrella or a pair of gloves. Whether abandoned or to stake a claim of residency she did not know.

The following morning the same dog and his owner were there again. And again the little dog wagged his tail and woofed “hello”. This time she actually said hello back, out loud, and was rewarded with a raised head and a more enthusiastic tail wag. The body in the sleeping bag stirred a little but Debbie hurried on to work. Both the little terrier and its owner had vanished that evening.

On the third morning the dog was sitting up and looking alert as if waiting for her. She said “good morning” to him and he stood up to wag his tail in greeting. This time, with the umbrella folded up in the corner, the figure in the sleeping bag turned around and peered over their shoulder. It was the face of an aging, world weary woman, wrinkled and grubby with a fringe of charcoal and silver hair escaping her black woollen hat. Large, dark brown eyes stared at her from under the fringe. Debbie smiled shyly but said nothing and marched on by as usual. She was conscious of the woman’s gaze following her as she crossed the street and when she turned the corner out of sight she looked back and saw that, sure enough, the woman was leaning up on her elbows and staring at her.

The next day both dog and owner were sitting on top of the neatly folded sleeping bag and cardboard mattress and facing out onto the street. The woman was sipping what looked like hot chocolate from a steaming paper cup. When Debbie approached,  the little terrier woofed his friendly hello, stood up and took two steps towards her. “Hello doggie” Debbie said, slowing her pace.  The seated woman looked up at her and ruffled the elderly terrier’s ears with her free hand. “Henry likes you, don’tcha Henry?” she said. Debbie stopped and bent down to stroke his head much to his obvious delight. “Well I like him too. He must be good company for you”. It was a statement rather than a question. “Oh he is. Getting on a bit now though en’tcha sweetheart? This one’s Henry the Third. He’s been waiting a long time this one.” Debbie wondered what exactly he had been waiting for, but there was no further elaboration, so she gave Henry the Third  one last chin rub and straightened up to go. She took the opportunity to look more closely at the woman who was still gazing fondly at her pet. Somehow her eyes did not match her face making it difficult to approximate her age. They were dark brown, shining and alert, a young person’s eyes but from the condition of her skin and hair she looked to be in her sixties.  Debbie knew that living rough aged you prematurely and besides, she couldn’t imagine anyone that old living on the streets – weren’t there homes for the elderly that she could have gone to? The woman had a good bone structure and might once have been very attractive, especially with those eyes which were simply mesmerising. When they suddenly flicked up at her, she felt as if they had penetrated her innermost thoughts and she blushed.  “Sorry, I’ve got to go now. Take care of yourself” she said quickly and spun on her heels to cross the road.

She found herself thinking about Henry’s owner later that morning and wondered who she was and how she’d come to live on the streets. What had happened in her life to make sleeping rough her only choice? Aside from Henry’s resemblance to Harry, part of the fascination, she knew, came from the fact that the woman had the same piercing eyes as her Mother. Debbie had been only six at the time that her Mummy had died, just a few short weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. In truth she could barely remember her and had always been a little jealous of Mark who, being three years older than her, was able to recall much more about the beautiful woman with the big brown eyes. Most of her own memories came from family photographs.

That evening at home, Debbie retrieved a large dusty cardboard box from the top of the wardrobe and parked herself on a beanbag in the lounge beside her husband, Jon. She had told him of her encounter and the memories it had stirred and he suggested looking through the old photographs in the box. She enjoyed showing Jon pictures of her Mum and  reminiscing about her childhood.  One of her favourite photographs was of the whole family grinning broadly next to a huge Christmas tree. Her Mum was holding Mark’s hand and resting a chubby baby Debbie, on the other hip. Dad had his arm around her shoulder and they both looked young and happy. Her Mum was very pretty with the same dark, exotic eyes as the homeless woman.

There were lots of Christmas photos in the box, which was no real surprise as Dad modelled himself on Mr Fezziwig each December and their house had always been full of family and friends. The only time there had been a gap in the photographic records of Christmas was that first year without Mum, but thereafter the photos resumed and Harry the rescue dog made several appearances.  These days everyone congregated at Mark and his wife’s and Dad maintained his tradition of photographing the family beside the Christmas tree. It was generally a riotous affair as Mark and Laura had four children under the age of ten. Debbie used to wonder how much more chaotic it would be if she and Jon had been able to have children of their own to include in the fun…

The rest of that weekend was spent in a flurry of preparations for Christmas and Debbie set aside all thoughts of the “dog lady” as Debbie came to refer to her, to focus on wrapping presents and writing the last of the cards. Only when Monday morning came, all too quickly, did she remember Henry the Third and his owner. The weather had become a lot chillier over the weekend and Debbie took a detour on her way down from the station to buy a hot chocolate from Costa Coffee. On impulse she bought two, a large Danish and a sausage roll, intending to provide breakfast to the woman and her dog.  She walked quickly to the car park, wondering how the homeless woman survived outside overnight in the sub-zero temperatures.  When she reached the doorway and found it empty it was almost a relief, hopefully  this meant that the dog lady had found space in a hostel overnight to avoid the worst of the cold. There was someone else in the second doorway just a little further along though, a young man just beginning to stir and pack his things together so Debbie walked over and handed him the spare hot chocolate and the pastries instead. He seemed so grateful and surprised that she actually felt guilty that she was not helping more. “Do you know what happened to the older lady with the dog?” she asked. He shook his head. “Sorry miss I’ve not seen her. Don’t know anyone like that but I’ve only just moved to this patch”.

She wondered what his story was too and how he had ended up sleeping in a doorway in minus 3 degrees. Her feeling of guilt notched up again and she spontaneously opened her shoulder bag to take out her purse. “Here, make sure you get a hot meal down you or try and find a hostel or something” she said handing over a twenty pound note. He beamed at her “Awh thanks miss, you’re an angel! Happy Christmas!”. She watched him as he gathered up his meagre possessions and hurried down to the far end of the street, where a number of cafes and sandwich shops were located.  Just as she was about to cross over to the office she caught a glimpse of the dog lady with Henry the Third at the same T junction, heading in the direction of the city centre. Well at least they are alive and well, she thought and reluctantly made her way to work.

Later that evening, as she was navigating the hordes of commuters and late night Christmas shoppers on the approach to Piccadilly, she saw the woman again. They passed each other going in opposite directions as they crossed the same busy road. Debbie looked over her shoulder to double check it was her but she had disappeared, lost in the scores of people milling along.

She did not find anyone sheltering near the car park the next morning or the morning after but as the week progressed and she was out and about the city centre, she caught sight of the dog lady and Henry several times. They were usually too far away to talk to and if ever Debbie turned to walk in their direction, they seemed to melt into the crowds, almost as if the woman sensed her approach and wanted to avoid her. Maybe she thinks I’m stalking her, Debbie mused to herself, only half-jokingly, but then it occurred to her that perhaps it was the other way around. It was a little strange that she kept seeing the dog lady wherever she went, having never noticed her in the previous few weeks.

Thursday was Christmas Eve. She finished work at lunch and walked into town to finish off the very last of her Christmas shopping. As she made her way back to the train station through the back roads and laden with carrier bags, it began to sleet and she broke into a trot whilst struggling to juggle her bags and button her coat with her two free fingers. When her phone began ringing in her pocket and she tried to extract that too, she was utterly distracted and stepped out onto the zebra crossing without noticing the black VW Golf speeding down the road towards her. A furious barking to one side her made her look up and she leapt backwards onto the pavement, stumbled, dropping several bags and her phone, and landed in a rather undignified heap on her bottom. The speeding car barely slowed and was gone straight over the crossing and around the bend in a blink. Dazed and in shock it took her a moment to recognise Henry the Third at her feet, wagging his tail and snuffling at her feet. The face that appeared at her side was that of the dog lady, her dark, beautiful eyes peering at her with concern. “Are you alright Debbie?” she asked. “Yes… yes, I think so. Thank you” she stammered in reply and then puzzled “How did you know my name?”. The woman held out her arm to help pull Debbie back to her feet. “It’s there, plain as day” she pointed at the security badge still dangling on a lanyard around her neck, under her unbuttoned coat,  identifying her as “Ms Deborah Moffat”.

“You need to take better care of yourself young lady, you wouldn’t want your kids to be without their Mum at Christmas would you?” the dog lady gently chastised her.  Debbie paused, suddenly overcome with emotions. “I don’t have any children” she replied, swallowing back the tears. Or a Mum either, she thought. “No?” the woman said gazing directly into her eyes “Maybe by next Christmas eh?”. Debbie bit her lip and felt her shoulders begin to shake as the tears came. The dog lady put an arm around her shoulder. “Come on love, you’re in shock, let’s get you a nice cup of tea and a sit down”. Debbie allowed the dog lady to pick up her bags and phone and to lead her by the elbow to a café on the corner. Henry the Third dutifully followed and sat outside the door while his owner sat Debbie down at a table and presented her with a steaming  mug of tea. “Here you go pet, get that down you and you’ll soon feel better”.

Debbie was suddenly very embarrassed “I’m sorry” she said, drying her eyes with a napkin “I feel such a fool. And I haven’t even thanked you for saving me from being run over”. The dog lady shrugged “That wasn’t me, it was Henry. He’s been looking out for you.” Debbie did not know how to respond to that and just said “Oh…right.” Her scepticism must have shown on her face because the woman leant forward and took her hand. Her deep, dark eyes were piercing and Debbie felt as if the woman was peering into her very soul. “I know it sounds strange, but believe me you’ll understand one day”. Debbie turned to look out of the window at the aging dog sitting quietly and obediently just outside, watching the world go by. It had stopped sleeting but the skies looked heavy with snow clouds. When she turned back to look at the dog lady, she noticed how tired and old she really looked. A little of the gleam seemed to have gone from her eyes and the resemblance to her long dead mother seemed to vanish.

“Listen, what will you do over Christmas? Do you have anywhere to go? Maybe I can help?” Debbie asked. The woman sighed and smiled “You are your mother’s daughter alright” she said mysteriously. “Honest love I’ll be fine; I’ve got a bed in the Baxter Street hostel till the 27th. . But they don’t take dogs… If you really want to help me you could look after Henry for a couple of days? Just till I’m free again?”

An hour later and Debbie pressed the doorbell on her own front door, being unable to find her keys with one hand clutching a half dozen shopping bags and the other carrying a scruffy Jack Russell cross under her arm, looking for all the world as if it was his rightful place.  She was somewhat surprised to see Mark opening the door. “Have we got room for one more on Christmas Day?” she smiled at him as he lent over to pat the dog’s head. From the hallway she heard Dad calling “Is that our Debs?”. He appeared at Mark’s shoulder and gasped “bloody hell it’s another Harry!”  She smiled “No Dad, but he does look like him doesn’t he? This is Henry the Third and he’s staying for Christmas. Come on let me in you two it’s freezing out here”. They made way for her to enter but she noticed that both Dad and Mark fell silent and their smiles had faded to confused and thoughtful frowns. Putting Henry and her bags down and peeling off her coat and scarf she looked from one to the other. “What’s the matter? Is everything alright?” she asked “And why are you both here at this time anyway? I wasn’t expecting you till later.”

“Oh we were just returning Jon’s electric screwdriver. He’s just popped out to the corner shop by the way – you’ve run out of teabags” Mark sounded a little distracted.

They all walked through to the kitchen and sat at the table. Henry followed and settled himself at Debbie’s feet. She watched both Dad and Mark staring at the dog and took a deep breath. “If you’re wondering where he came from, well…he sort of saved my life”. Their expressions of confusion changed to ones of shock and concern as Debbie recanted the tale of her encounters with the dog and his real owner and her narrow miss with the car at lunch time.

“So I felt it was the least I could do really and it’s only till Monday”. She stroked Henry’s head and he looked up at her adoringly and thumped his tail on the wooden floor. She glanced from Mark, who looked like he’d seen a ghost, to Dad who was frowning and pale. “Well it’s the damned-est thing” he muttered, almost to himself. Mark and Debbie both looked at him and waited for him to continue. “Harry…well Harry was actually a Henry too. I…I didn’t ever tell you the full story because you were both so young and to tell you the truth I was a bit ashamed of myself”. He paused and looked from Debbie to Mark to Henry and back again. “The truth is – I stood by that canal seriously contemplating throwing myself in because I just couldn’t face the world without your Mother. I’d been so wrapped up in my grief that I’d been neglecting both of you.  Your Grandma and Grandad had practically taken over looking after you anyway and I just thought you’d be better off with them than me, I was a broken man…Then, just as I was about to jump in I heard a little bark and a whimper from under the bridge. I don’t know what made me go and look but I did…” Mark concluded the sentence “…and you found Harry”. “Yes, but the weird thing is that the note actually said “My name is HENRY, please look after me”. I didn’t ever tell you his name because I thought it was a bloody silly name for a dog. I know we always said Harry was a rescue dog but I swear it was him that rescued me rather than the other way around”.

There was a thoughtful silence in the room and Henry, seeming to sense that he was the centre of attention gave a small woof and stood up. Debbie picked him up and sat him on her knee, where he settled himself contentedly, chin on paws.

“It gets even weirder I’m afraid” Mark broke their reverie, “although I didn’t realise it at the time. That Easter I went camping in the Lakes with the boys from Uni do you remember?” Debbie and Dad nodded and waited to hear what could possibly make this story any stranger…”Well one night we came back from the pub and it was freezing cold so I brought my camping stove inside my tent to warm up and.. I fell asleep.” Debbie looked horrified “Mark you idiot!” she cried. She knew that people had died from carbon monoxide poisoning doing exactly the same thing. He looked suitably embarrassed…“I know but I was a bit pissed. Anyway, the thing is, I woke up just after midnight when this dog started barking furiously right outside my tent. Woke the whole bloody camp site up. I had a stinking headache and felt a bit sick but realised what I’d done and turned the stove off. When I unzipped the tent to see what all the commotion was I saw this dog that looked a bit like Harry and this woman with a backpack across the field. A few of the other campers had woken up and were shouting at her to shut the dog up and bugger off so she called to him ‘HENRY! Come here boy!’ and they disappeared down to the woods. The name didn’t mean anything to me until today – I was just glad his barking had woken me up”.

Debbie’s heart began pounding and her head was spinning, the dog lady had called him Henry the THIRD and said he had been waiting for a long time…waiting for what she had wondered but now she knew…he had been waiting for her, to save her, in the same way his predecessors had saved Dad and Mark, even if they hadn’t realised it at the time. Who the hell was this mysterious woman with the big brown eyes? She began to feel faint and the last thing she remembered before passing out was Henry jumping off her knee to greet Jon as the front door opened and he called “Hello!” down the hall.

When she came to on the sofa in the lounge, Jon was kneeling next to her holding her hand and Mark and Dad were stood behind looking concerned. He stroked her forehead. “Are you alright sweetheart?” he asked. “Yes, yes I’m fine now honest, I think it was all just a bit of a shock”.  She spied Henry at the bottom of the sofa as he stood with his front paws on the cushion and tried to peer at her. Mark sat himself on the arm at the end. “Jon suggested we go to the Baxter Street  Hostel and talk to this woman – see if we can’t find out more about what’s going on”. Debbie nodded “ok” and forty minutes later they were sat in a car outside the hostel on Baxter Street, not entirely sure what to do next. They did not even know the woman’s name…

“I’ll go in – it might look a bit heavy handed if we go en masse” Debbie proposed. The others agreed and she climbed out of the car, up the steps and through the glass doors at the entrance. “Can I help you?” asked the bearded man at the front desk. “I hope so. We’re looking for an older lady who said she was staying here over Christmas, about 60, dark brown eyes, black woollen hat, owns a dog called Henry?”

“Ah. That sounds like Pam. She used to come here a lot.  Are you a relative?” There was something in the tone of his voice that rang alarm bells. “No – just a friend. We’re looking after her dog for her”. “Is your surname Moffat?” Debbie nodded. “ Well I’m sorry Mrs Moffat  I’m afraid I have some bad news, Pam died  earlier today. The police found her down near Deansgate station.” Debbie held on to the desk for support. “But that can’t be right I saw her just hours ago!” she exclaimed. The man looked doubtful but sympathetic. “I’m so sorry Mrs Moffat but there was a positive ID. The police brought us this letter though” he began to rummage through the drawers in his desk. “They said she’d written a note specifically asking them to leave it here for collection. Ah – here it is” and he handed her a slightly tatty and aged looking cream envelope addressed to “The Moffats, Care of Baxter Street Hostel”.  She stared at it in silence, too stunned to speak. “To be honest we weren’t sure anyone would come for it.” The man confessed. “Are you ok? Do you want to sit down? Or can I call anyone for you?” “No, you’re alright thank you, my family are just outside”. She smiled weakly at him and bid him good-bye.

She sat back in the car and looked at the expectant faces around her. “Well?” asked Jon. “She’s dead. The guy said she died this afternoon but she left us this.”  Debbie showed them the letter. “No way!” said Mark in disbelief. Dad took the envelope from his daughter, opened it and began to read:

Dear Bob, Mark and Debbie,

You do not know me and I’m sure you have lots of questions. I will not be able to answer them all but let me tell you how many years ago a beautiful young woman saved my life. In those days I was a drinker, that’s how I ended up on the streets in the first place. One day I sat half drunk and shivering with cold on the pavement near Victoria, the rain pouring over me. I held out my hand to beg for money and everyone ignored me. Hundreds of people must have walked straight by and dismissed me for being the worthless wreck of a human being that I was. I didn’t even look up at them anymore, I just sat soaked to the skin with my palm held out for change, thinking how pathetic and desperate I had become and how heartless and unforgiving the world was. I decided that I’d had enough, that I didn’t deserve to live anyway and that I would get up and walk down the rail track until I found a train going fast enough…

 But just at the moment when I’d hit rock bottom I suddenly felt a warm hand in mine and this voice asking if I needed help. When I looked up I saw the kindest face with beautiful brown eyes looking at me, actually seeing me as a human being and not some piece of trash. She smiled at me and helped me up, took me out of the rain to the café on the station. She said her name was…” at this point Dad began stammer and to choke back tears “…her name was Glenys Moffatt”. There was an audible intake of breath from Mark and Dad seemed incapable of speaking so Jon took the letter and continued to read aloud. “She was so nice to me. She paid for my tea and a plate of hot food. She talked to me as if I was a real person. She wasn’t patronising or nosey. When I asked her why she was helping me she said she’d just found out she was dying and wanted to do some good in the world before she went. She said I’d looked as if I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and  that she wanted to show me that there were still some decent people in the world. When I asked her if she was frightened of dying, she said no, but she was sad for her family, for all of you because she wouldn’t be around to look after you and keep you safe. She showed me a photograph of you all and you looked like the loving, happy family that I’d never had.

 When your mother took leave of me she gave me some cash and her umbrella and held my both of hands in hers and told me to take care of myself. I promised her that I would and that I’d look out for you when I could. I vowed to myself that I’d do what I could to protect you. I came from a family of travellers and had inherited a sort of 6th sense from my own mother so that I had a knack of anticipating danger.

 Glenys was a remarkable woman who restored my faith in human nature. I never saw her again after that day  but I thought of her often. I stopped drinking and even lived in a real house every now and again although I never really settled in one place.

 My dogs kept me company and I knew that they’d be useful in my mission to look after you. Bob – I didn’t expect you to keep Henry the First and thought I’d reclaim him from the Dog’s Home but I’m glad he stayed with you in the end and that you looked after him so well. Henry the Second was a livewire and would never have settled in a real house so I kept him with me. As for Henry the Third, well he has had to wait a long time to look after your baby Debbie, but if you could make him cosy and comfortable for the last year or so of his life that’s all I ask.

 I can rest now, knowing that you don’t need me anymore and that I have paid my debt of gratitude for your lovely Mother’s kindness. Bless you all and take care of each other.

 With warmest regards

Pamela O’Reilly

 P.S. Remember to stay off the mulled wine, pate and soft cheese Deborah Moffat!”

All four of them sat in a car, sniffing and wiping their eyes. They looked at each other and smiled through their tears. “Does she mean what I think she means Debbie?” Dad asked. She looked into Jon’s eyes and put a hand on her tummy. “I don’t know… but nothing would surprise me after everything else that has happened”. She had been feeling unusually tired recently and very off colour in the mornings…

Debbie smiled to herself, snow began to fall and Henry the Third woofed from the back seat, wagging his tail. Christmas was coming and this year would be the start of a new era.

The Top 10 Children’s Christmas Books

Just to add my own two-pennorth to this list (which is pretty good). Here are a couple of extras which my son and I enjoyed each Christmas when he was small:

  1. Jesus’ Christmas Party by Nicholas Allen – a lovely, very funny take on the nativity from the point of view of the inn-keeper
  2. Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr. All Mog books are lovely and this is no exception.
  3. Jingle Bells by Nick Butterworth. Lovely illustrations and our copy has a real sleigh bell to tinkle on the cover.

Enjoy!

Michael J Holley - Writer

If you have children, or indeed if you have Christmas, then you need to read these books. This Top 10 is not my own, The Huffington Post posted it a year ago, and some of them I haven’t read yet but with Christmas coming up, and children seeming to always be in my house, what a perfect opportunity.

I’m going to start writing some Christmas stories this week for an Anthology that I hope to get out before the big day. These books will get me in the groove. Also, I’ve stated before that one of my favourite books of all time is a Christmas book (A Christmas Carol) and the season of goodwill doesn’t start for me until I’ve read it. Here’s the chart…

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Mind your language

I am an infrequent but unashamed swearer, as anyone who has shared an office with me will testify (and you know who you are). I have very, very rarely sworn directly at someone. Most of my cursing is targeted at myself or an inanimate object.  However, I do confess to swearing about events or people that have pissed me off, on a fairly regular basis too.

I make no excuses for swearing because there are times when a good Anglo-Saxon expletive perfectly  articulates the strength of feeling I have about something.  In the heat of the moment describing someone as a wanker, fuckwit  or arsehole is a much more emotive and succinct way of putting it than “a self-obsessed, arrogant, unpleasant, rude and ignorant  person of limited sensitivity and intelligence and of no genetic value to the future improvement of the  human race”.  One word sums up the twenty six which would otherwise be required to get a half way decent picture of the object of my scorn and disapproval, and somehow it includes the passion which is missing from the more detailed description. I am generally slow to anger, so if I do resort to such a rude title then you know that I am genuinely upset by someone’s behaviour.

Swearing is much more powerful if done selectively  and the impact is lessened if over-used. People who intersperse every other word with  “fucking” or call everyone a wanker, tend to deserve the title themselves more often than not. And I cannot abide people who swear with abandon in front of, or worse still, at young children. Sadly on more than one occasion I have heard parents screaming at children, no more than four or five years old, to “fucking get over here” or “put that fucking thing down”. Appalling and inexcusable.

However I am equally annoyed by self-righteous, non-swearing people who pontificate and moralise about the slightest damn and blast. I have never, ever been offended by swearing on the television and have difficulty understanding why some people get into such a tizz about it. Swearing is a part of real life and as such I expect to hear it used appropriately in dramas and comedies. The bad guy with the gun wouldn’t be very scary or realistic if he used “gosh darn” instead of “motherfucking” just as Tamsin Greig’s 30 second outburst of profanity at the jobsworth security guard, in Episodes would not be so laugh out loud funny if she’d just said “flipping”.  We laugh because we feel her release weeks of pent up frustration and irritation – swearing is a fantastic pressure valve. And a lot less offensive than a smack in the face.

I do try to mind my language in front of my own son but I’m no angel and confess that I am guilty of muttering  the odd  “bollocks”, “shit” or “bloody” under my breath every now and again.  If my husband overhears, he will gently admonish me with a “…less of the casual swearing please Lian” and I will remember to be good for a while.

My language definitely did improve a little when I overheard my boy, just  six or seven years old at the time, becoming increasingly frustrated with a toy and saying to himself “…ggrrrr – the damn thing won’t work!”.  I loudly “ah-hem’d” and said “excuse me?” only for him to turn his big baby blues on me and reply very sweetly  “…it’s alright Mummy, it’s only casualty (sic) swearing and casualty swearing is for children”.  Oh dear.  As ever, it is out of the mouths of babes that we are enlightened. Mortified that he’d picked up my bad habit of cursing to myself and also his father’s usual chastisement, but highly amused that he’d misheard the expression and misinterpreted it. I was obviously not supposed to use “casualty” swearing because it was for children, not grown-ups.  Needless to say I enlightened him and the incident has become part of the family folklore now.

So there we have it. Confessions of an unrepentant potty mouth. You may argue that it’s unnecessary and indicative of a poor vocabulary. In which case I urge you to watch Stephen Fry on the Joys of Swearing …and to shut the *@!#  up.

Thoughts from an autumnal garden

Looking up through the canopy of my glorious silver birch. Nov 2012

Late on a perfect October afternoon and the first leaf raking of the autumn. Residual heat from the gradually sinking sun filters through the semi-naked branches of the ash, birch and laburnum to warm my bones. The damp, earthy smell of the fallen leaves rising from the lawn with every thrrrupp, thrrrupp of the plastic rake. The whole sensory experience that comes with gardening is a pleasure and I soak it up. I know that many people loathe chores like this and see gardening as a tedious extension of housework. There are times when I agree with them; when I’m in a rush, distracted by other worries or overwhelmed by the long list of chores that need to be done, then I find it hard to enjoy. But not on a day like this. I am making the most of the shimmering, golden light, the smell of mouldering leaves and the persistent calls of the gold finches perched on the rose arch.

As I gather the foliage into piles on the lawn it occurs to me that there are parallel reasons why I enjoy both gardening and writing. The first of which is “me time”.  I am a social animal and thoroughly enjoy the company of my family and friends but I am also perfectly content with my own solitude. Gardening gives me space and time to think, to sort through my mental jumble and nurture ideas just as I nurture seeds in my potting shed. Writing too, gives me “head space” and it is this time to think, about the world, my relationships and about myself, that I treasure. Some might call it navel gazing and my head certainly fills up with scrupulously examined belly-button fluff  at regular intervals, but I do believe that self-awareness should be part of everyone’s mental good health regime.

In both writing and gardening there is an element of cultivation which appeals to my nurturing nature. Germinating the seeds of an idea is as delicate a procedure as persuading your half hardy annuals to sprout in the potting shed. In the same way that over or under watering will cause your precious seedlings to wilt and die, over or under thinking an idea will prevent it from achieving its full potential. Often with garden hoe in hand,  I will have an idea and then spend a lot of time pondering how to develop it into something substantial enough to be worth writing about. Only for it to wither and die under close scrutiny. Occasionally, though a little gem will take root. “Confessions of a Tea Snob” was conceived whilst weeding the herbaceous borders, or to be precise, whilst sipping a drop of the brown stuff on a break from weeding the herbaceous borders. (Admiring the effects of your hard work in the garden over a mug of steaming tea is a must).

The mug was a gift from my son – smart boy.

Stretching the analogy still further, editing is the literary equivalent of weeding. Removing the unwanted dandelions, bindweed and brambles, whilst keeping ivy and alchemilla mollis under control is akin to stripping out the superfluous sentence, pruning the repeated adjectives and separating your mixed metaphors 😉

Since I wrote the above autumn has moved forward into November and there is now barely a leaf left on the trees in my garden. It is not looking at its best. Mud and decay dominate at this time of year, but I’m planning to get out there still, if the rain holds off. I have 3 dozen white tulip bulbs to plant before the hard frosts begin and the prospect of how stunning they will look next spring is enough to make me brave the damp and cold. Our resident Robin will no doubt be hopping around close by, in the hope that my trowel will turn over something wriggling or scuttling, and, if I time it right, I’ll be able to listen to the blackbird as dusk settles. How can it be a chore when there is so much to enjoy? Go grab a hoe or a trowel and get outside in the dirt. Listen to the birds, feel the soil under your fingernails and smell…autumn. It will help clear your head and free your imagination. Who knows what bright ideas you may come up with…

My Personal Booker Awards

This award is passed around from author to author/other bloggers so that they too, can share their top five books. The idea is the old desert island thing; which five books would you take with you (assuming they’re in a water tight box).

Having been set this challenge by my friend, the lovely Mr Mike Holley (check him out http://michaeljholley.com/about/ ) I have been in a terrible quandary all week. Five. I ask you – how on earth do I narrow down my long list of favourites to FIVE? Whatever I leave off will feel like a betrayal. It feels utterly wrong to NOT include something by Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens,  the Brontës, John Irving, Ian Banks, Stuart Maconie, Bill Bryson, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Rose Tremain, John Steinbeck, Lynley Dodd or Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Ok so Lynley Dodd and the Ahlbergs may not have written “novels” but they’ve produced some of my all-time favourite books OF ALL TIME. And probably the ones that I’ve read and re-read more than any others. If you have children you will understand. If you don’t, I urge you in all earnestness to read the entire “Hairy McClary from Donaldson’s Dairy” back catalogue and anything, no, make that EVERYTHING by the Ahlbergs.

Anyway, I can only apologise to all of my literary heroes who didn’t make the cut today and will excuse myself by saying that it was too difficult to choose a particular favourite novel from their portfolio of masterpieces. I’m also assuming that I will be given the “Complete Works of William Shakespeare” as a “free pass”. I know they are plays and poems rather than “books” but I would throw my dummy out of the pram and not play at all if I couldn’t  take that. And just like my nominator, if I were to think about this on another day I would almost certainly come up with a different list. But here goes … for the moment at least.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

“How predictable” I hear you yawn. The reason this heads my list and no doubt that of a very large percentage of the reading world is because the characters are beautifully, effortlessly realised and the story told simply and without artifice. Scout’s innocence and naivety perfectly counter the ignorance and prejudice. Poetic, amusing, even scary at times, it is ultimately deeply moving. Atticus Finch is a contender for my favourite ever fictional hero, for his nobility, integrity and strength of character. What a role model. And in my opinion, Gregory Peck was perfectly cast in the marvellous film adaptation. If ever a book deserved the title “classic” this is it. I love it dearly.

The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

I was profoundly affected by this book when I first read it at the age of 17. I know it tends to divide people. There are many who dislike it because the main theme is depression and because nothing much happens.  But I am deeply fond of this book because of the emotional punch it packs and the empathy I felt for troubled teenager Holden Caulfield when I was a similar age. He’s fucked up but I understood him and knew that I would be too if I had to go through the same things that he did. I think that Salinger does a brilliant job of getting inside the head of a sad and lonely young man.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

This actual Booker Prize winner is another that leaves me utterly stunned, with the lyrical beauty of the prose and the heartbreaking tragedy of the story. I love the sing-song language and the wonderful evocative descriptions of India in 1969. There are sections that are more like poetry than prose and I want to read them aloud to better appreciate the words. One of those novels that makes you despair of writing even a single sentence as beautiful. Read it and weep.

Skellig – David Almond

I bought this book, without knowing anything about it, from Waterstones, in a temporary promotional section called “Life-changing Books”. I can’t say that it actually did change my life but it definitely stayed with me for a very long time after reading it (and much, much more that the two others I bought at the same time). A more contemporary setting than my other choices but with a brilliant, magical twist. I was riveted and devoured it in a single sitting. I was convinced that it was all going to end in tears and it did – but with less of the sad kind this time. Bloody brilliant.

His Dark Materials Trilogy – Philip Pullman

Ok so I’m cheating a teeny-weeny bit here but you do need to read all three books to appreciate the full splendour of the story.  This was recommended to me by the young daughter of some friends of ours and I will be eternally grateful to her (thanks Ashleigh!). It may be aimed at children / young adults but the subject matter is anything but childish. Thrilling, philosophical, magical and emotionally strong stuff. I cried at numerous points, (have you noticed a pattern here?) even on a second reading a few years later. Whatever you do, do not be tempted by the film version (“The Golden Compass”) of the first book (“Northern Lights”). It looks beautiful but has little of the heart and (ironically given one of the main themes) none of the soul of the book.

So that’s my list, this week at least. In reading back through my choices just now I have spotted another (genuinely unintended) recurring theme. Aside from the fact that every single one made me cry, each describes the world from childhood memories or actual point of view of a young adult or child. Well that’s given me something to ponder…

Apparently I’m now supposed to nominate 5 fellow authors/bloggers but I’m fairly new to this and still making writing friends (!) but these guys might like to be nominated:

Rick Mallery – http://rickmallery.wordpress.com/

Dennis McHale – http://insightsandobservations.wordpress.com/about/

Roger Kirkham – http://rogers-rants.blogspot.co.uk/

Looking forward to your desert island books guys…

Party Animal: Reflections (or post mortem?)

Having finally posted my first short story last week I  thought I might offer up my a few thoughts and observations about the actual process of writing it. If you haven’t read “Party Animal” yet,  scroll down to the previous post and do so first to avoid spoilers!

  1. Writing fiction is much harder than writing memoirs and general brain dumps … Coming up with an idea and a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end is tough. I know that the plot of “Party Animal” was not particularly original but I wanted the experience of writing a short story and was inspired by all of the unavoidable  pre-Halloween hype. Hopefully the variation on an old plot was told well enough to be worth reading still.
  2. He said, she said… I struggled with the dialogue. My hubby thought that it was quite good and “naturalistic” but it didn’t feel that way writing it. For a start I had to remind myself of the basic grammatical rules for writing speech and more than once had to grab the nearest novel to see how it was done. I suspect that dialogue is one of those writing muscles that I need to exercise and that the reason I found it so hard is because it doesn’t generally come up much in the writing I do for my day job. Reports, presentations, instructions and business comms messages have to be factual, objective and unambiguous so I’m  bit rusty on the whole written conversation thing  :-/
  3. Exposition and loose ends… Another thing that I wrestled with was how much I should spoon-feed the reader and how much I ought to leave them to ponder. Being an anally retentive sort of person I have a pet hate for loose threads and (continuing the metaphor if I may) I tied myself in knots several times trying to ensure that I didn’t leave the reader saying “hang on a minute, you mentioned this earlier and now there’s no explanation”. For example, I felt that I had to conclude the problem of  the lost report at the beginning which sets the scene for her bad day, and to mention what happens to her clothing during the metamorphosis etc.  Tiny and seemingly irrelevant details but these are the sort of things that wind me up whether I’m reading, or watching a film…anyone else really bugged by the lack of explanation as to how the hell James Bond survived being shot and then falling a hundred feet off a bridge in “Skyfall”???  I can still spot a half dozen little things in “Party Animal” that I failed to explain properly. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I should trust the reader to plug the gaps. I’d be interested to know what you think – is it just my obsessive compulsive tidiness or do loose ends bug you too? Which of mine did you spot?
  4. It all takes much longer than I thought… My story was only around 2500 words long but it took me an age and I missed my target publication date by 4 days.  I had wanted to post it just before Halloween but working full time and trying to write in between maintaining a family life and managing domestic admin in the evenings and at weekends is not easy. Excuses, excuses. Next time I will set myself a more realistic deadline.

Having said all of that, it was still fun to write and a great learning experience. If I can come up with any more ideas for a good yarn I will definitely have another go. In the interim I have a backlog of other stuff to write about first and lots of research to do so I’d better get a wriggle on.