Short story: Chez Celestine

Madame Lafarge sized up the high street as she waited at the traffic lights in Leadenham. Wide pavements, neat stone faced buildings, small shop frontages. But the stone cross in the market square was disfigured by the presence of a cheap blue plastic neon sign with fish n chips on it. Tsk tsk she muttered, patting her bun. She scraunched the gears in her Citroen Kangoo and the car leapt forward eagerly, farting it’s exhaust noisily. Then she spotted the lease sign. She swerved abruptly into a spare parking space between a mud splattered range rover and a scratched Nissan micra with an L plate.

This could work she thought. A small shop frontage, a wooden door covered with thick black paint. Inside the cobwebbed window were dog beds and cat scratching posts on a bed of sharp plastic grass.

She closed her eyes and saw the future.

The shop, Chez Celestine, opened on a crisp November morning. It had been three months of plaster dust, stripping and painting, endless trips to source tiles, cabinets, rustic furniture and commercial ovens, but it was now done.  

In the window were tall wicker baskets for the pain flute and a little oblongs of flaky pain au chocolat, slender  pain flutes with a crisp crust  and the wider batons of golden yellow  in wicker baskets. 

By seven thirty the pain flute was out of the oven, and neatly displayed like cricket bats in a tall wicker basket for the good folk of Leadenham to view. Alongside were homely pain de champagne, itself a little like Madame’s trademark chignon bun. The display took a nod to Celestine’s cafe style of the Montgesty bakers with a chic Parisian edge. Behind the glass domed counters were the patisserie. Open tarts of fresh strawberry mountains, nestling on crème patisserie and glazed with a clear shining gloss. There was dark chocolate torte decorated with chocolate shavings, frangipan biscuits with jewelled peel of lemon and orange studded with hazel nuts and frozen in chocolate.

The tables were decorated with zingy gerbera and the smell of roasting coffee with a burnt undertone of cinnamon and spice and the yeasty promise of rising bread enticed the first customer into the shop. She was a stout woman with flat lace up shoes, dressed in a thick green woollen coat.

She came in and looked intently at the stripped floorboards, raised an eyebrow at the turquoise and black wallpaper of songbirds and then smeared a finger over the metal cafe tables as if looking for dust. She then examined the cakes and flaky pain au chocolait and yellow curved croissants behind the counter with a small frown and expression of bewilderment.  

‘Good Morning – what can I get for you?’

‘Hello, well, you’ve been busy.’

‘Yes, I have. It’s been a long job’

‘I can see that – it’s been transformed beyond recognition.’

‘Thank you’

The customer sniffed and Madame Laforge was not clear if this was in fact a compliment.

‘Well I wanted some bread. You do have some I take it?’

‘What style of bread Madame?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘As you call it, would you prefer a keeping loaf like pain de champagne or as you English say, some French bread. Fresh and tasty, like the baton, or the pain flute, but not so good for keeping’ Madame Lagarge gesticulated with a dainty finger to the different types of loaf.

‘Well I suppose I could try a keeping loaf.’

‘A good choice, you won’t regret it’

‘That’s as maybe – but I’ll need to go to Alf’s for the usual. Sliced. My Tony’s not going to change now.’

‘Well, perhaps you may like to try a pain flute next time?

‘It looks a little hard on the teeth, I suppose it would be alright with soup’

‘Exactiment Madame, a good choice’

And with that her first customer left and Madame Lafarge realised how hard she was going to have to work in this small town. Montgesty, Montgesty, Mongesty she sighed. 

Flash fiction: Silver

She clawed at the ground, dirt packing  her nails. If only she could remember. She felt for cool metal, watched for a flash of silver light, imagined the ring against her skin. The smile  the day he left her.

From the watch tower the guards grinned. ‘Crazy bitch,’ said Pedro

‘Every day the same’, replied Pieter, as he watched the tired pantomime and sent a  rifle cracking into the brilliant aching sky.

She flinched like an animal.

‘Time to reel her in,’ said Pedro and he scattered a shoal of curtain rings into the air. They fell catching the sun as they went, fell like rain onto the dry soil of the compound and the woman ran around, picked them up, stared at them, before slowly letting them fall through her fingers.

‘Time to come home,’ shouted the guard and the gates opened for her, once again. 

Getting it out the door + video ‘Conceive’

In my job, ‘getting it out the door’ means the point at which a piece of writing or print has to be signed off and ready for the printers. There is usually a tension between trying to get it spot on and good enough, in the meantime the deadline nears until there is no more time available. 

In my own creative work  it’s much harder to apply this principle. The fun bit was writing the novel, editing is a long process – you upset one part of the plot and you have to excavate around it. Keeping at it is taxing and at times I lose momentum, but I wouldn’t want to send the precious thing out under-dressed. It deserves the best attention it can get when I do finally wave goodbye and send off its first three chapters to the literary agents. 

People advise getting work published in magazines in order to build a name for oneself so you have a track record. But I’ve got into a habit of not sending things out. I complete something and move onto the next bit of writing, rather than risk being rejected, or exposed. 

Luna Park, Melbourne
The more writing I do on the ‘Screw work let’s play challenge’ the more I want to share.  Being creative makes me feel truly alive. And maybe it’s a numbers game – in the last year I’ve only entered two competitions. As a strategist I could do better!

So, instead of carrying on with the same patterns I aim to put some fun back into the process and send stuff out and see what happens.  As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Try again, fail more, fail better’. But hopefully I won’t be failing. 

In the spirit of trying not to be perfectionist I’ve recorded a draft of a story I wrote today. It’s a 20 minute piece and I can think of a million ways to improve it. But for now, here it is. A start.

Short Story: Conceive 

It’s going slowly today – how I keep going

Earlier this week things were going well I was in the flow or writing and editing.  I took my laptop to work with me, editing and re-writing on the train. Usually I write at home where I have masses of notes, and papers for props surrounding my laptop. I have proved to myself that I can sit down anywhere and write which dispels the myth of the isolated artist sitting around for inspiration. My play journal was filling in my twenty minute writing slots, but I’ve been so tired these last few days that the notes are nowhere near the finished piece of writing I wanted to send out for competiitions this week. 

Today it’s going very slowly, I have little energy left. In my manuscript, The Wish Bone, I am editing Chapter 24, writing a scene around two teenage boys, Danny and Freddie.I have to think myself into their worlds and their language and it’s stalling. The most useful thing  that happened today was my teenage son saying ‘Piss off’ in conversation. The correct swear words are a key to characterisation of my cast of characters. Mum says, ‘Oh God’, Dad says ‘Christ’, and Freddie will now say ‘Piss OFF’. Obviously not all at the same time. 

Getting the voice right is key and this is what I’m striving to achieve as I edit. ‘What I did’ by Christopher Wakling is a fantastic example of a novel with an authentic voice. The child narrator is a six year old boy full of vibrant energy whose voice stays consistent from his struggles with getting dressed to the way he describes the world using his world view of his favourite Attenborough programmes.  In a world full of noise and throwaway content the writing that shines will have a unique voice and the book will have heart, soul and spirit. That is why I edit. I’ll come back to it tomorrow. What else is there to do? 

In the meantime here is some inspiration that I found useful today, given to me by my writer friend Diane, who is writing a book in 30 days.  This is her favourite quote:

and here is some visual imagery from me: 

Happy writing, friends 

Experimenting with free-writing with video

So on the theme of free writing, or micro blocking. These are the rules learned from the Screw work let’s play people  that I’m exploring this month to help make me more creative.

Make a daily appointment with yourself for a set amount of time – I’m trying 20 minutes a day. Use a kitchen timer,  or a watch for that period. Stop at the end of 20 minutes. Then write what you plan to do for the following day’s microblock, writing down an appoimtment time in your diary. The act of reflecting back adds value, giving you a starting off point the next day, and a reminder of the progress you are making.

What I’ve been finding is that because I’m freewriting for a short focused period of time this is knocking out my internal critic – the one that nags away with all those negatives about how I can’t think of anything to write, or I’m not good enough. There’s also a distraction critic who sits around tempting me with cups of tea, other brilliant ideas, bills to be paid, friends to call and email messages to answer. There’s no time for any of that. You just go. The video shows an example of a free-writing  exercise I had fun with.  It’s a short story called Ivy.

8..10 – 8.30 Editing my novel on the train

I’m now using my 40 minute commute to work to edit my novel in the morning and free-write in the afternoon.

Usually at a weekend I sit down to write and can sometimes spend hours at the task. Or not start because domestic stuff gets in the wau. This weekend I decided to schedule my writing time. It feels a bit weird as if I’m still at work.

For the first time in a long time it felt like I was in control of my creativity, instead of being it being in control of me. I began writing at 7  am, and decided to finish by 13.00. Result was that once I’d closed down the laptop I could leave the writing behind with a sense of satisfaction. I’d managed to fit in my writing with the boring tasks like the Sainsburys, and I could concentrate on my family for the rest of the day, and stop feeling guilty. Result!

Free-writing helps with letting go of the work having to be right – whether one produces anything good when you’re free-writing isn’t the point – it’s about keeping going, and flow.  You can always work on the notes and ideas that you come up with.

The process creates an expectation that you can write when you like, and where you like, so I don’t have to sit in ‘a room with a view’ to do it.

I find once I pick up the pen then the ideas usally flow, better than when I’m just trying to think of the ideas. Writing is a muscle that seems to grows stronger and more fluent with practice – which is one of my aims in starting this project, and sharing this blog.

Rabbit – a story buried since 1991. Edited 2013

Animal Track

Nakedness comes without warning: a rabbit crouches, held to the gritty tarmac as light-beams bear through the night. I’m trapped, not daring to breathe.I open the window, leave the front door banging, catch clear views of the valley, let the wind sweep through. The hens scratch for grain. Over a cup of coffee I read the paper. There is no news I can make sense of. I had a bad night, heavy with sleep I turned with the wind, waking with a start from a dream of betrayal.

On the wall hangs my magic carpet from Istanbul. The pink centre catches my eye, love and wealth woven by Turkish women in the mountains. Authentic, said Mahmood. I head for the fields, though  farmers around here wouldn’t recognise these scraps of land as fields. They were unsure about me, couldn’t see me sticking it, a woman on her own, out here.

Mr Scott was the first to inspect. A jockey of a man with bandy legs coming up the valley, bobbing from side to side. Dressed in a sports jacket and over large wellies, blue plastic bailer twine dangling from his pocket. He stood about 100 yards from me leaning on one leg swishing a hazel stick at some couch grass. He pushed his  cap back to reveal yellowing grey hair and started fiddling with his pipe. Tap tap on his hands, emptying the old ash out,then bringing out a tin of baccy. He studied me as he might a spring tup.

“Jenny Blore” I offered. 

“Scott”, he said, “Mister Scott.”

He walked over. The handshake was firm. He resumed his meditative pose, leaning on his stick, puffing on his pipe, presumably for inspiration. His pipe moved in time with his words which were short to prevent the pipe losing its grips on his thin lips. Underneath the wild eyebrows the eyes were studying my cottage and fields behind me. When he glanced at me I could see that the colour of his eyes was mackerel.

“Difficult land this. Not much money in it.”

“That’s fine by me, it’s good for herbs.”

He took out his pipe very slowly and spat. “This is sheep country. There’s no market for herbs. Sheep, you won’t beat sheep.”

“I’m going to supply garden centres and farmers markets.”

He laughed. “I could rent a field from you if you like, pay on the nail, give you a helping hand. Can’t say fairer than that.”

“Mr Scott, I’m a trained horticulturalist, I know what I’m doing. Now would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Never drink the stuff. Good day to you Mrs Blore.” 

          “It’s Ms, actually.” I said. 

He didn’t respond of course. That had been two years ago and the harassment that followed made me more determined to succeed. The old chap refused to mend his fences and when the sheep broke through and began eating my comfrey or cotton lavender he’d arrive an hour after my polite phone call then comment on the inefficiency of the barricades I shoved in the gaps of his fences.

Mr Scott had  duplicated his humour in the shape of a brawny, black mopped son. He liked to park his tractor close to my lavender fields. Blaring Radio One, engine running, he would amuse himself watching as I hand-hoed my crop. He liked to shout, “how’s the herbs missus ? Before tearing away in a belch of exhaust fumes, cackling with laughter. 

It got to me, I was the outsider, and I’d never fit in because I wasn’t born here, wasn’t a country person. Wasn’t one of them. I tried the The Horse and Jockey – the car park was full of land rovers, 4 x 4’s. A belt of laughter and a yellow glow shone through the small leaded lights but when I pushed open the heavy door the men resting their pints on the bar stopped their conversations, began a series of nudges and winks, hunched their backs and a curious hush descended as I waited my long turn to be served.  

Another bad night. A rancid dream wakes me slick with sweat. Being trapped. A blackness over my star. One has to be practical, and as dawn bleaches the white walls of my bedroom I head for my ‘scrap of land.’ It’s seven in the morning. I trail my hands over the lavender, letting the scent support my longing. The flower heads are moist and crisp; it’s a good time to harvest at this hour. The trug quickly fills. I mix the lavender with pine cones and bark shavings, keep it pepped up. My grandmother used to pack her lavender into fine lace pouches, but she would have approved, I think.  

In the city I was scared of walking alone at night even a few yards to my car. The unnatural light made shaded corners more frightening. I saw myself as rapists or muggers might, rushing past lonely spaces without looking right or left, unable to hear anything but my own thumping heart. A target. Here darkness is honest. Stars can shine brightly, the moon control the heavens. Nocturnal life can flourish. Bats, owls and running things scent the night, part the air with beating wings, watch and listen for each other from tree, burrow or tussock of grass. 

 The dreams are getting darker. When I switch off the bedside lamp the night completes itself, outside and within, a closed circle. The cottage fills with an inky space full of creekings and rustlings that belong to old buildings. Outside the moon hangs heavy, pregnantly silver. I force myself out of bed to look though the window, to make out damson and hawthorn, steady in the deep. As I stood with my back to the bed I heard a scratch on the stair, someone watching me. I turned around quickly to confront it but white space above the bed mocked me. A white wall absorbed my looking, gave nothing away. 

I wonder if my mind is playing tricks. The dream is of grinning, staring faces. My head is rigid, I’m forced to look, locked in, sweat-naked. They are coming closer. I crouch in the road waiting for the head lights. At the last moment, screech of tyres, animal squeal releases me to run for freedom. And I am safe until the next time. In the mornings I tend my flowers, and bushes will dig, water and weed, soil my fingers with earth in a constant prayer, hands engraved with dirt. 

Today I abandon my trug, set off down the valley; for once the work can’t hold me. The hedges have come on since the rain – the first blush and bloom of summer. The cow parsley erect with delicate creamy heads, timothy grass upright and smooth to touch, feathery rye grass sways on long stems and at the base of these, coarse swards of couch, deep green and sharp. These simple pleasures renew me, were the reason I returned to the country after the falseness of concrete and streets beneath my feet. At least that’s the  reason I give to the people around here. I don’t want to think about it. If I’m going to think  like that I may as well return to the cottage, tackle the accounts, phone suppliers, fix delivery dates, deal with the real. I thought it was buried. 

The air is so still, weighty, the clouds hang. I veer into the wood for cool comfort, sneak under the barb wire. I don’t know this part. White feathers, all that’s left of a foolish wood pigeon. The earth is crushed, airless. Trees guard the light from the bottom levels. It’s not managed. Brambles arch, whippy elder thrusts, my feet stir last year’s leaf mould releasing spores. Rustling loudly through the thicket my senses are full of my own crashing sounds. I need to get out. I thought I knew the way. Something ahead – a small body twisted, prone. Badger. Guts ballooning, opaque belly stretched, blue-ing. Dulled snout, flies. No reason for it to die.  Sudden tears for swollen belly poisoning whilst I chose a cot.

Bloody wood. I rage out of that wood past brambles and nettles till I reach the field. 

Clouds move over the sun, Can’t cry. Catch my breath, rub my bramble scars, then hear a sky lark singing, a thin rope of sound pulling higher and higher up the air. 

Squint to see a tiny fluttering in the sky. There. A moment’s song, then the plunge, down, down like a stone.  

This story was a buried treasure – locked away in a folder forgotten about. Thank you to Fiona who reminded me I’d written it, after seeing my recent blogpost Buried Treasure, and for keeping a copy from the 1991 writing group. The story needed editing hard, which shows how my writing’s improved in the last 20 years.  Enjoy.

How do writers find inspiration?

Inspiration or perspiration?

Sometimes I sit in front of the blank screen willing myself to write. But no magic story-telling genie arrives.  And what I do write feels lifeless and wooden and I can’t connect with the magic of it. 

Even worse it’s my writing Saturday and not only have I not written, but also not cleaned the house, shopped, cooked, talked to my children, cooked tea. I can’t get in the flow – nothing emerges, or I strangle it at birth with a heap of criticism. 

I’m now using a technique called microblogging. Setting aside 20 minutes of time to write every day, with a time to show up and work, write for a set time, then stop, with an idea for the following day. It’s been working – I’ve been thinking around some ideas for short stories. Nothing much came up but I used the photo below as starting point. On my 40 minute train commute to work I’ve been scribbling away desperate to finish this story.  

A misty morning last November in Staffordshire. I love the quality of the light, what’s in focus and what’s hidden.  

Here is the  story that I wrote on Monday/Tuesday March 4th & 5th 2013. No inspiration involved. Parts of the plot was lifted from a newspaper article I’d read months ago, and the details of visual impairment came from an equality workshop I attended for work. The original bit, is the character, and the words. Let me know if you like it. 

George and Fran

Being blind has its complications of course. Steps. He counted endlessly. A metronome in his head, a concentration of maths. Commuters on the way to the station platform  watched him nervously as he poked his toes over the top step of a flight of 12 concrete steps, holding onto the dog by a silver harness. He seemed poised for action on the top step then stiff- legged began his descent down.  

He didn’t want any help though. He was in charge. He worried someone would grab him, pull his sleeve – it happened sometimes. He’d rather they stood back and let him move at his own pace. Fran and George were fine very much thank you. Fran didn’t like being petted when she was working, and it made him nervous in case she got distracted. Really it wasn’t fair for people to interfere. 

He heard the ping- pong of the station announcer. George would love a job like that. Using his voice to help others. Sound was his most secure sense. He boarded the train. The door slammed, a whistle blew  and  he settled back, quickly disturbed by a rustling plastic bag, a hiss as a bottle was opened, a fruity call of a mobile alert. A low screech and the long pull out of the station. Then the noise changed to a whine on the tracks, a shivering rumble on the suspended rails as the carriage swayed from side to side, gathering speed. Warmth on his naked eyelids. The thing they called the sun. 

 A pressure in his ears told him there must be a tunnel. Eventually he heard  “Train now arriving in London. Please take care when leaving the platform.” 
Fran didn’t like getting off. Too much of a jump. He used the long reins to help her and felt gingerly for the platform edge, positioning himself sideways to  ‘mind the gap’. 

Paddington was always a concern. Noise was  amplified; he imagined a cave, voices like the sonar of bats rising. Odd echoes in the blackness of his head. A hiss of brakes as a train heaved to a standstill, slapping doors. People like naked mole rats. 

Fran kept halting, people must be in her way. Strangers at Paddington seemed not to notice him as they did in his home town. 

“George!” Mickey’s voice was near. He led George deep into the underground tunnels where the distant whoosh of stale electrified air and the vacuum of passing lives filled his senses. 

“Well, fella, there you go,” Mickey said as he placed a bottle of water in his hands. “The washing up bowl’s in front of you,” he said. 

“Thanks, said George,” the sound of his own voice like a thin, underused stranger. George placed his white stick in the bowl to keep it secure. He felt the coldness of the tiles behind him and leaned back against the wall.

“Alright old girl?” 

Fran responded by a thump of her tail once, twice, three time, so he knew she was fine. He began his day’s work – whistling to the crowd and listening as the coins chinked up. From experience he knew that optimal positioning of the bowl had to be closer to his audience so they didn’t have to walk too closely to him. They liked their privacy he supposed, but so did he. 

Between tunes he counted, assessing the difference between pound coins and 50 pence pieces. It wasn’t just a game.  Until Fran could tell the difference between someone putting something in and someone pulling something out he had to rely on the honesty of strangers. But he knew that there were more chink chinks that went in than came out at night. Since the recession people were less generous and more of his money went missing from the bowl, despite the white stick firmly planted in the centre of it. It wasn’t fair, this was his job. It was a good enough living for three days a week, but not if his takings were being interfered with.   

That night he felt his way towards kettle, dog bowl and fridge, hearing the predictable babble of Radio Four and the purr of the heating. He longed to be without distractions, for noise to settle like a blanket, not a curse.   

An eighties poem – the Australia series


The road glitters

Buckles like a whip

Unfolding through the bush for miles

It’s scrub, arid to the eye

The pupil splits to encompass

This land of wind-picked colours

Burnt out trees are

Grubbed up by a belt of fire

The deep horizon sings

Eyes deceive; pools of oily water

Etherise into hot blocks of air.

A crow with a cry like a bleating sheep

Flies heavily from a dead kangaroo

Its tail stiff on the road.

Unlike the Aborigines

We pass through quickly

Buried treasure

Buried treasure or buried rubbish ? 

Poems hidden in files, poems published

I’ve been writing since the age of 5. Poems at first – language was magical – I loved shaping it, trying to make it do what I wanted whilst writing quickly so not to miss any of the good stuff. I used to stay behind at lunch to write instead of going out to play. I was 11 when I won my first writing competition and got a cheque from the BBC for reading it on BBC Radio Stoke. I went to the same school as Carol Ann Duffy, though I didn’t know her, she was admired in the English Department even then. 

Published in Sheaf / Here Now

My dream was to make a living from writing, so I studied journalism after school, but I was never hard-nosed enough and I wanted to write creatively. I found my natural home with an English and creative writing degree, became a performance poet in Sheffield, and was published in local mags  like Sheaf, and Here Now, alongside Ian Macmillan, Penelope Shuttle, Michael Horovitz. (Yes really!)

What happened? By the age of 30, despite encouragement from other writers, I was frustrated.  I hadn’t made it to being a ‘writer’ and became depressed. I stopped sending stuff out, stopped calling myself a writer. Writing was so AHH! important to me I couldn’t bear the rejection. 

A lack of self-belief, fear of failure and a huge nagging internal critic meant I’ve at times struggled to get words on the page. Or I’ve written and not sent anything out for years. But I am serious about writing – this is my library of books about the subject.

Some of my writing pals

I’ve been involved in many writing groups over the years and have some great writing friends who sustain me. For the last three years I’ve been writing a novel, The Wish Bone, and I’m now on my second draft. I want to finish it and get it published. I’m in an editing stage which doesn’t feel much fun, so I need to connect again with my characters, and the work. 

I know many talented writers in these groups, who like me don’t send their work out. They think it’s not ready, it’s not good enough, or it’s not finished, or they’re not confident enough,  and all that sparkle and creativity on the page is lost. Their stories stay in the locked drawer.

Of course there has to be quality, as writers we want to polish our work to a high shine, but if we are too perfectionist or too defeatist our work is buried. 

This blog is about breaking through those barriers, kicking away the blocks that bind, re-discovering old work, and getting to the magic writing flow. I want to find ways to be a writer that cuts through the stuff that keeps work languishing and hidden, and to help writers stuck in negative patterns find more positive ways to work. 

I’m setting myself a challenge alongside 200 others with “Screw Work Let’s Play” . During the month of March I aim to re-visit old work to see if there’s any treasure within it, seek out writing opportunities, inspire others, write new work and send it out, to become a writer whose work is seen, whose voice is heard.  

This blog is the start. 

Manuscript of The Wish Bone