Stories and Such


Writing fun

posted 17 Jul 2017, 05:05 by Fran Brady

This is the kind of thing that turns writers on: take a word, any word; write it longways down the side of. page; now think up a noun, verb, adjective and adverb beginning with each letter and create a grid of words. 

NOW: WRITE A POEM OR PROSE PIECE/SHORT STORY USING EACH WORD IN TURN. 
Like this:

NOUN                          VERB                           ADJECTIVE                 ADVERB

MADNESS                    MEANDER                   MISTY                          MEANINGFULLY

INDIGO                         IDOLISE                       IDEAL                          INDOLENTLY  

DELIGHT                      DESPAIR                      DUSTY                         DARINGLY

SOLSTICE                    SOOTHE                       SINGLE                         SORROWFULLY

UNDERWORLD             UPROOT                     UPPER                          UNDERSTANDABLY

MISGIVING                   MOLLIFY                    MILD                            MURKILY

MORTIFICATION          MOULD                      MUTINOUS                  MOISTLY

ENDEAVOUR                EXPLAIN                    ELEPHANTINE             ELEGANTLY

RELATIVITY                 ROUSE                        RUSTY                           RIGHTFULLY

 

 MIDSUMMER

If Madness chose to meander

Down the path of misty years

She’d never say a word that would

Fall meaningfully on the ears

 

If Indigo chose to idolise

Plato’s pure ideal

She’d sadly sit at Socrates’ feet

Indolently scorning what’s real

 

If  Delight ignored the despair

That lurks in dusty cloisters

She’d waltz through life oblivious

And daringly live on oysters

 

If Solstice did not soothe

With a single sunlit dawn

She’d never save us from ourselves

We’d be sorrowfully gone

 

If Underworld knew how to uproot

Death’s powerful upper hand

She’d take out a patent to protect

An understandably precious brand

 

If Misgiving could not mollify

That doubt, though mild and small,

She’d surely lose the battle and

Crawl murkily under a knoll

 

If Mortification tried to mould

That mutinous streak so cranky

She’d be left to lick her wounds

And sniff moistly into her hankie

 

If Endeavour could not explain

Her elephantine ego

She’d never find a spouse to wed

Even elegantly in Rio

 

If Relativity chose to rouse

Einstein’s rusty old theory

She’d be turning happy cartwheels

And be rightfully tapsulteerie 

Resurrection Joy

posted 11 Apr 2017, 05:49 by Fran Brady


Easter morning. Again. Father Joe mentally castigated himself for that ‘again’. Not so much the word as the inflection his tired brain put upon it. Where was his resurrection joy?


It had been a long haul since Christmas: every sermon interrupted by bouts of coughing; umpteen home visits to the frail elderlies, housebound by the icy pavements and arctic winds; umpteen hospital visits to the ancients, wheezing their last in overheated wards; his own health undermined by the temperamental heating system in the ramshackle Priests’ House and the stodgy food dished up by their housekeeper, Sister Mary Bernadette.


The added burden of Holy Week services on top of daily mass had felt like the last straw, particularly on Good Friday. His shoulders had been aching after an hour and a half of propping up the big wooden cross on a chair for a stream of parishioners to plant slobbery kisses on the plastic feet of the crucified Christ. No better way to spread disease, except possibly the Protestants’ dubious practice of the common cup. 


The Saturday night vigil had never seemed so long, nor the stroke of midnight so welcome. He had wreathed his round face in smiles as he wished the small band of the faithful “Happy Easter; Christ is risen.’ Some had wanted to linger, probably to make sure that their presence had been noted. There wasn’t much doing good by stealth in this congregation.  


Now it was morning - well dawn anyway - as he yawned his way back along the path between church and house. There was a fine smirr of rain falling from an overcast sky and a chill breeze taking liberties with his cassock. Just his luck to draw the short straw, the first mass of the day at six o’clock. Father Brian would do the eight-thirty, and he would be back on at eleven. They hadn’t yet decided who would do Benediction at six in the evening. His colleague had an unerring instinct for remembering an urgent pastoral visit when he wasn’t in the mood for ‘dressing up’. There was no doubt that it was a royal pain putting all the vestments back on again after tea. After six weeks Lenten frugality, Easter Sunday tea was eagerly awaited by the priests. There would be Simnel cake: that rich, fruity marzipan sandwich would be the first sweet taste either of them had had for six weeks. They would shamelessly over-indulge, feeling they deserved it. After that, a snooze by the fire would be much more attractive than trudging over to the church and struggling into heavily brocaded vestments. 


But he was fourteen years’ junior to Father Brian who never missed an opportunity to remind him of this and take advantage of it. ‘Humility, dear boy,’ he would say. ‘Humility and obedience.’ Then he would rock on his heels and intone sanctimoniously: ‘Watch and pray, Father Joseph. Watch and pray.’ Joe had to work hard at not allowing himself to retort, indeed not even to think the words. Resentment of authority was always the first sin when he made his weekly confession. 


His curmudgeonly musing had brought him to the door of the church. He took the big key from his pocket and winced as it made its customary yowl in the lock. The cocktail of old incense, candle smoke, rising damp and wet wool seemed especially disgusting this morning. The vestry was clammy, the stale air bitter with lingering cigar smoke. He forced open the one small window: even the drizzly morning air was better than the residue of Father Brian’s tobacco habit. As soon as he had disrobed, his senior colleague must always light one of his thin, pungent cigars. Why could he not wait until he was out of the church? But that was just one of many repressed, unasked questions. 


He began the ponderous process of robing up for mass: the unchanging order in which each garment must be donned; the particular prayer that must be said over each one before putting it on; the kissing of certain garments. Always hefty, this morning the complete ensemble felt like a stone shroud. Drearily, he made his way from the vestry, along the short corridor to the sanctuary, muttering the last of the ritual prayers. There would probably be no one else in the church. There rarely was at the six o’clock, except one or two devout souls and they had all been at last night’s vigil. Even they would feel justified in sleeping on and coming to a later mass. Besides, everyone wanted to share the exuberant joy of Easter, after the slog of Lent, with fellow-believers. Everyone wanted the big show, the soaring organ music, the roar of voices uplifted in praise. 


However, early mass must be said, every day, whatever the day. He prepared himself grimly for the task. Uninterrupted by participants, he could breeze through it and be back in the warm kitchen in no time. Twenty minutes was his record but he reckoned that today was going to beat it. He pushed open the sanctuary door, grimacing as he remembered that he had – once again – forgotten the oil for its hinges. The blast of heat and the dazzle of light stopped him in his tracks. Had someone forgotten to put off the lights and the heaters last night? 


Swelling chords of music cut through his startled thoughts. It sounded like the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. No: even more rousing that. And what was that scent? It was at once powerful and delicate. He wanted to go on smelling it for the rest of his life. He could almost taste its sweetness, its glory. The heavy vestments slipped off, noiseless and unnoticed, and he began to glide forward, the rubber soles of his boots seeming to float just above the wooden floor of the long centre aisle. He reached the altar in seconds and saw that the Lenten purple shroud had already been removed from the big crucifix above it. That was to have been one of his jobs this morning after mass. He stared up at it and was filled with fear. The cross was empty, the Christ-figure gone. Only the small clips that held the wrists and feet remained. The figure must have fallen off. Hesitantly, he searched the altar and the floor but there was no sign of it. Meanwhile the music continued but becoming gentler now; the fragrance and the bright light also abated a little. 


He was just about to look behind the altar – there was a small gap since the wall curved – when he heard a voice: ‘Why are you looking for him? He is not here. He is risen.’ 


Father Joe turned and caught the swirl of an iridescent white robe as it moved down the central aisle and was lost in a dazzle of blinding light. With it, went the music and the fragrance. And with it, went Father Joe’s reluctance, his dreary exhaustion and sense of grievance. He was filled with joy - purposeful, excited joy. Resurrection joy! 


stones before the ocean

posted 8 Jan 2017, 08:38 by Fran Brady   [ updated 8 Jan 2017, 09:26 ]

I have had the honour of appearing in a worship anthology, called 'Stones Before the Ocean', alongside such venerable names as Charles Wesley (And Can it be?) and John Newton (Amazing Grace). Here are my three published poems in it:

1.    This poem came to me while I was sitting in a communion service on the Thursday of Holy week. As Jesus prepared himself for the death that awaited him the next day and the disciples continued to be as obtuse as ever, did he have doubts about the success and lasting efficacy of his short mission on earth? Or was it always intended to be just the beginning . . .

 goldmine 

three years was all he had

to reveal the infinite ages of God

walking distance was all he had

to cover light years of knowledge and truth

simple, illiterate folk

to teach the complexity of His plan

arrogant, hostile scholars

to teach the simplicity of his love

 

 when they nailed him to the cross

did he hang there wondering

is it enough? It is finished -

but have they really grasped it?

that was when he knew that

revelation could not end

 

Christianity is not a finished product

to be analysed, preserved and taught

it is a living language always evolving

like modern Italian to classical Latin

so our living faith to old texts

the goldmine goes on giving


2.   This poem came to me at a ‘spiritual creativity’ conference about three years ago. The room was full of artists and I felt inadequate. How could anything I might write possibly compare with the beautiful artwork I could see evolving around me?        I took my feelings to God:

already given

fill me up , Lord; empty vessel, me

colour me pretty, Lord; blank canvas, me

mould and sculpt me, Lord; potters’ clay, me

light me up, Lord; space of shadows, me

delight my ears, Lord; silent and deaf, me

open up my life, Lord; limited, shuttered me

 

what is this empty, colourless lump of clay?

what is this shadowy, silent, closed-up box?

I do not know it or recognise

its place in my creation

I have poured out my spirit upon you

I have shone forth my power upon you

I have lit you up with the colours of love

I have sounded out my clarion call

a vibrant drum roll

to shatter your shutters

and rupture your limits

I have planted eternity in your heart

 

why go on asking and asking?

I tire of your demands

for the already-given

now listen to MY demands:

be full

be bright

be shaped

be lit up

be full of music

be open wide

live the life

for ME


 

3.  This poem expresses my sadness that the thrill I felt when I first found Jesus has somehow been commuted to dutiful routines and even boredom; but also my realisation that God is as sad as me about this as I am. He is still offering the thrill; why am I turning away from it?

innermost

remember first love?

remembering to breathe

forgetting to hide

aching void that filled up with a rush

and emptied back fast into pain

counting the moments till the next rush

not wanting to tell of it

not able to stop with it

carrying a fire so deep that it charred

my innermost innermost

 

how did it happen?

how did it become normal,

blunted into routine?

wonder turned into duty

toil verging on tedium

watching the clock, awaiting escape

nothing to talk about

no news to share

dousing the smouldering ashes 

in my innermost innermost

 

can I find it again

that breathless first love,

recapture the first careless rapture?

He has no need of my love

why would God almighty need me?

But He wants it, He yearns for it

offers new kindling for the ashes

pure gold for base metal

red-hot love for cold duty

why not take it? why not?

what is it I am afraid of

in my innermost innermost?

The anthology is over 200 pages of inspirational writing of all kinds, stretching across centuries and continents. You can download it as an ebook for free or buy it from various bookselling sites. Find out about it and read the introduction from its curator at www.stonesbeforetheoccean.tk

 

Touch and Go

posted 8 Dec 2016, 11:56 by Fran Brady

 

Today is the slowest day ever. I feel like there’s a sharp smell in my nose, a smell I want to follow, breathe in and taste. Like chips and vinegar in the street when someone passes with a hot greasy handful of newspaper. It calls out and draws you in but it slips away just as you reach it. I am asking questions and getting answers that are no answers. Wait and see. That would be telling. I am catching glances between Mummy and Daddy as they bat a secret back and forward with their eyes. But when I catch the secret mid-flight it dissolves and runs through my fingers. I turn quickly to look but the bats have turned into eyes again, blank eyes that smile and tell me nothing. I am watching the clock. The big hand is like old Mrs Clancy next door who walks so slowly that she takes all morning to get from her door to her gate. The little hand is stuck, frozen maybe like the window that Mummy couldn’t open this morning. I have been watching the clock for hours and hours and it has only changed a very little.

 

It must be bedtime, surely. The window has gone black and I can see the moon. It is like a big silver penny. I go to my bedroom. I take off my clothes and put on my pyjamas. I do it as fast as possible because my room is so cold. There is ice coming on the window again, same as last night. Mummy will have to scrape it off in the morning.

The morning! Christmas morning! I get into bed. It is like sinking into a snowdrift: soft, white and very cold. The moon lights the room, silver streaks and grey shadows.

‘What are you doing?’ Mummy comes in and switches on the top light.

The moon slips out of the window quickly and lets electric yellow have its way. I sit up blinking and blinded. ‘Is it morning? Can I get up? Has Santa come?’

‘It’s only tea-time, you silly thing. And get out of those freezing sheets. You’ll get your death. You know I always put a hot water bottle in long before you go to bed. Come on, tea’s ready.’

I can’t believe it. Only five o’clock. Another three hours till bedtime and the whole night to go before the morning. Today is the very slowest day ever.

 

I am in the sitting-room on the rug in front of the fire. I have had a bath and my hair has been washed. I have to sit here and let the heat from the fire dry it. Mummy and Daddy are in their bedroom and I can hear them laughing and talking. I am not allowed to open the door or to go through to them. The smell of the secret is seeping out under the door of their bedroom, down the lobby and in under the door of the sitting-room. I can see it swirling into the room. It is like the pretend fog that we saw at the pantomime with Granny. It is so thick that I can taste it. It is driving me wild. I get up and grope my way to the door, breathing in its fumes. I press my ear to the door and I hear Daddy say: ‘Touch-and-go. She’ll love it.’

 

Mummy is brushing my hair, tugging the knots, ouching my head.

‘Mummy?’

‘Yes, pet?’

‘What’s a touch-an-go?’

‘A what? ‘

‘A touch-an-go.’

‘Oh . . . well . . . it’s when something nearly doesn’t happen. But then, at the last minute, it does. Why are you asking that?’

‘Is Santa bringing me a touch-an-go? Will he nearly not bring it but then bring it at the last minute? Will it get here in time? Will it be here when I wake up?’

‘Silly! A touch-an-go isn’t a thing. It’s just a saying.’

‘But I don’t want a saying from Santa. I want a present.’

‘Well, you’ll better come and get your cocoa now. Your hot bottle’s been in your bed for an hour so it’ll be nice and warm. The sooner you sleep, the sooner you wake . . .’

‘The sooner it’s Christmas Day?’

‘That’s right, pet.’ She is walking away from me.

I panic. ‘But I don’t want a touch-an-go!’

‘Your cocoa’s ready. Come through to the kitchen and get it.’

 

I am in bed for real now. Mummy says I must not get up before the little hand is at seven.

‘How many hours is it till seven?’

‘Eleven.’

‘Is that a big lot? How long will eleven hours take?’

‘No time at all because you’ll be sleeping.’

If there is no time when I’m sleeping, how does the clock move its hands? How will Santa know when to come? Will he really come down the chimney? Will he burn his feet in the hot cinders? How does he know which house to bring my present to? What does a touch-an-go look like? What if it’s too big to get it down the chimney?

 

How can I go to sleep when I have all these swirly things in my tummy? They keep coming up into my chest and then into my throat. I have to swallow them back down and then they start swirling again. I think I’m going to be sick. I am so worried about this touch-an-go thing. What on earth can it be? Santa must have got me mixed up with another little girl. I never asked him for such a thing. How could I? I’ve never even heard of it. I decide to close my eyes and do some imagining. I imagine up the best present in the world as I snuggle in my snowdrift that has turned into a cosy igloo, imagining and imagining and imagining . . .

 

I am running very fast through a cold, white tunnel. Santa Claus is chasing me and shouting ‘Go! Go!’ and I have to touch the white walls of the tunnel as I run. As long as I keep touching, he won’t catch me. But I am getting tired and he is getting closer. My fingers are so cold because the walls are made of ice. Now he is shouting ‘Touch! Touch!’ I stop running and sit down on the ice floor of the tunnel. I face him and shout ‘GO!’ Then I start screaming very loudly.

 

I wake up and I hear squeaks coming from somewhere. It must be a mouse. Then I realise they are coming from me. My sheets and blankets have almost fallen off the bed. I am shivering. It is pitch dark. I am afraid and I am sad. I don’t want Santa to come any more. He is a horrible, chasing person and he shouts at me. I pull the covers back over the bed and huddle down. My teeth are chattering. I hate Christmas and I hate Santa Claus. There! I’ve thought it. I say it out loud. Then I cry a little.

 

‘Goodness, pet, what have you been up to last night? Looks like you had a wrestling match in your bed!’ Mummy is here and there is bright light poking round the edges of the curtains. ‘It’s a beautiful morning. Freezing hard but very sunny. We can go for a lovely walk later. But first, don’t you want to come down and see if Santa has brought you a present?’

‘I don’t like Santa.’ I sit up slowly. ‘He’s horrible. He lives in a tunnel made out of ice and he chases you and shouts at you if you go in.’

Mummy is getting my woolly knitted dressing-gown off the back of the door. ‘Now what have you done with your slippers?’ She finds them and holds them out. ‘Come on, sleepy-head. Wake up. You must still be dreaming.’

‘No I‘m not. I saw him. He was . . .’

Daddy bursts in, crying ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Where’s the girl that couldn’t wait for Christmas morning?’

They both have big smiley faces, like the ones I draw on the sun when I am doing sunny-day pictures. They look really excited. And I can smell the secret again, very close now. I suppose it will be safe enough if they are with me. Daddy is bigger and stronger than anyone in the whole world. He won’t let nasty, chasing Santa catch me.

 

We go along the lobby three abreast, hand in hand, with them swinging me off my feet. The sitting-room door is closed. Daddy tells me to wait before I turn the handle to go in. He and Mummy are hopping about like the baby bunnies we saw in the park in the summer.

‘She’s going to love it!’ says Mummy.

They clutch each other and hop some more and then Daddy flings open the door and stands aside to let me go in.

The room is still dark because the thick velvet curtains have not yet been drawn. All I see is a little house in the corner with its two front windows lit up and a tiny lantern shining down on the red door. I stare at it. Can it be what I think it is?

‘Go on, pet,’ says Mummy. ‘Go and see what Santa brought you.’

I lift up the roof of the house and look down on four little rooms, all full of perfect little furnitures. Just like I have been imagining for so long but so much better.

Curtains on the window, cushions on the chairs, pots and pans in the cupboards, fork and knives on the table. Even a bathroom with a real toilet. I pick up the tiny clock and see it has a big hand and a small hand. I touch the kitchen cabinet and the drawers go out and in. The teeny family are all wearing clothes that I recognise, a shirt made out of material from one of my old summer frocks, a jumper knitted from wool left over from my new cardigan. The baby even has a tiny nappy, made out of my old hanky. I pore over every detail. And after a while I remember to breathe again.

 

Later, Mummy makes me come through to the kitchen for breakfast. ‘Before it’s too late and it’s dinner-time,’ she laughs.

I can’t believe how late it is. This is the fastest day ever.

I eat fast too and wriggle into my clothes, impatient to get back to my doll’s house. I decide to forget about nasty Santa. There must be two of them and thank goodness it was the nice one who came to our house.

 

In the afternoon, visitors come and sit around watching me playing. I tune into bits of Mummy and Daddy talking.

‘. . . went down to the workshop every Saturday morning for weeks.’

‘. . . got offcuts of wood from the joiners and scraps from the carpet shop.’

‘And the clock . . . so fiddly . . . littlest things took the longest.’

‘. . . nearly ran out of time. It was touch and go.’

I smile as I set the table for my little family and turn the hands of the clock to teatime. I have decided that a touch-an-go is a great present. I am going to ask for one every year from now on.

word path challenge

posted 23 Nov 2016, 15:08 by Fran Brady

The words: rambling; orchard; glass of milk; strawberry jam; grandmother's cupboard; bell ringing; the path; paddling; fox; the school-bus; echo; dawn chorus; take my hand; over the fence; panting; shoe polish; tightrope; meadowland; card trick; bedtime; mugshot; haircut; water lilies; rail crossing; fishing; under water; shooting the rapids; billiard room. 

The challenge: write a short story using all of these words in order. 

The story:

William is rambling through the orchard, a glass of milk wobbling in his left hand, a chunk of strawberry-jam cake, stolen from his grandmother’s cupboard, in the other. In the distance, he can hear the local bell-ringing group practising for Whit Sunday.

 

Where the path forks, he hesitates. If he veers left, he will reach the pond for a few minutes’ paddling, although it will be cutting it fine if he is to be back in the house for three o’clock, as he promised; if he veers right, he may just catch a glimpse of the fox, and even of the vixen and her cubs.

 

Amanda, his sister, who always gets there first, has seen them. She has shown him a photograph, taken with her smartphone. He doesn’t have a smartphone yet. Daddy says that the price of them is ridiculous but it is really because he is afraid William will access porno and gaming websites, or that he will be groomed on a social network site by a paedophile. So, for the moment, he has to use other boys’ phones on the school-bus.

 

The decision is made for him by a sudden high-pitched squeal. Its echo hangs briefly in the still, warm May afternoon and William sees a large bird soar into the sky, its vicious hooked beak silhouetted against the sun, a small animal dangling from its claws. He loves birds and often sets his alarm to wake him up in time for the dawn chorus, especially in this month of busy nesting, hatching and teaching fledglings. Yesterday, he had sat at his bedroom window for half an hour, watching a stern blackbird father showing one of his chicks how to hop from an overhanging branch onto the bird table. The chick had been timorous, wobbling and pleading: ‘Take my hand, Daddy, please.’ At least, that’s what William had decided it was saying to its implacable father.

 

He takes the right fork, buoyed up with a sense of purpose. The winged predator may have spotted the vixen and, having polished off the field mouse as a starter, come back for a main course of tender fox cub. He puts the milk and cake down on a crumbling bench and sets off at a run, vaulting over the fence, planting his feet very firmly on the other side to regain his balance in time to tackle the narrow ridge round the slurry pit. Its depths are shiny, like black shoe polish. He imagines he is a tightrope walker and flings out his arms very straight on either side.

 

He reaches the short stretch of meadowland safely and breathes again. That was a good trick, he thinks, just like the card trick his Uncle Joe taught him last summer. Daddy disapproves of Uncle Joe and he forbade him to teach William any more such ‘decadence’.   William’s protests that he likes decadence – whatever that is – and Uncle Joe’s cries of ‘old stuck-in-the-mud’ had made no difference. Daddy had remained unmoved, so they had resort to clandestine lessons by torchlight at bedtime. Then Daddy had discovered them one night and there had been ructions. Daddy declared Joe would end up in prison one of these days, with his mugshot on file and his wild, afro haircut reduced to a shaved head.

 

The vixen’s lair is easy to find now. William knows the smell – his dog, Grainger, often comes home, stinking and self-satisfied, after a long, delicious roll in fox-poo. Past a pool of stagnant water, the ugly result of an abortive archaeology ‘dig’ last year, but now redeemed by a clutch of water-lilies; past the disused rail crossing; past the short stretch of river where Granddad likes to play at fishing; past the mini-waterfall where William and his big brother almost drowned themselves one summer, having been under water for several minutes before being hauled out by a big hook. There had been an unholy row about that. Their explanation - that they were just shooting the rapids like they had seen on television – had not been well received. The boys had spent several boring days, grounded, confined to the library by day, not even allowed in the billiard room.

 

And, suddenly, there she is: Mrs. Fox, barring his path, arching her back, baring her teeth, emitting a low, menacing growl . . .

Auntie Rose

posted 6 Nov 2016, 12:58 by Fran Brady

Auntie Rose lived far, far away. It took us two days of travelling in my father’s pride and joy: a 1933 Hillman, bought with his ‘demob’ money, polished every week and parked proudly outside our prefab.  
 
Auntie seemed impossibly glamorous to my sister and me. She had enormous amounts of clothes, three coats and five pairs of shoes. She had the most beautiful bedroom. It smelt of spicy flowers and had three mirrors on its dressing table. I sneaked in one morning and perched on the satin stool looking from side to side through endless corridors of images of myself. It was the first time I had ever seen my profile. I pouted and winked and smiled and frowned. 

Auntie had no children so she was free to go off each morning on a train into London to ‘the office’. It seemed incredible to me that anyone would ride on a train every day. Train journeys were for holidays and special days out. And the very word ‘office’, spoken in Auntie’s hybrid drawl, belonged between the covers of a book. No one I knew back home in Scotland worked in an office. Factories, shops, mines and building sites, yes. But not an office. 

Auntie’s hands were beautiful, soft and white, fingers long and very slim, nails perfect-pink with delicate white half-moons. I had thought all grown-up women’s hands were chapped, seamed with soot lines, sore with winter hacks. Her makeup was a wonder. I had only ever seen a slick of vanishing cream and a daub of powder. Occasionally a smear of hard red lipstick like tomato ketchup. I preferred Mum without it. 

Mum’s beauty routine took about two minutes. She did it standing up, peering into the mirror above the fire. Auntie settled down at her dressing table and spent more than two minutes considering her strategy before action began, turning her head from side to side, appraising the multiple images, fiddling with strands of hair, pinching cheeks, pouting lips, wiggling eyebrows. 

Then she would open the small top drawer on her right hand side and consider its contents, rummaging lightly among them. Finally she would nod slowly and extract the first pot or tube and it would begin. I would sit glued to the performance, eyes wide, breath held. Before my eyes her thin, pallid, slightly greasy face would become warm and iridescent, cheekbones lustrous rosy, eyes deep in shadow, brows arched in black, lashes thick and heavy, lips rosebud glossy. She would finish the performance with several shots from the cut glass bottle, pointing the nozzle at her throat and pumping the gold cloth ball with unerring aim at the base of her throat and behind her ears. The scent was intoxicating. I swooned and once I almost toppled to the floor. I longed for just one shot from that perfumed weapon. It would be, as Dad said of a man who fell into a vat of whisky and drowned, a great way to go.

It became our annual summer pilgrimage: Dundee to High Wycombe. They came to us for New Year. Auntie was not yet anglicised enough to stand being out of Scotland for Hogmanay. Uncle Roy, English to a fault – he had been one of ‘the few’ in the Battle of Britain and one of the even fewer who survived – went along with all the traditions enthusiastically. He had a way of making everything seem like a kind of charade, a ‘wizard prang’ he called it. I thought he was wonderful – straight out of Biggles.    
   
   
Theirs was a wartime romance, one of those brief encounters that miraculously survived the turmoil of men missing in action, women and children wandering through refugee camps and the blustery panic that passed for military action. It was the late summer of 1940, about three months after the Dunkirk evacuation. He was going home to High Wycombe for a short leave before returning to his airbase near York.  She was returning from leave in Scotland to the ATS unit she was stationed at, near Peterborough. She got off the train at Crewe to make a phone call to her unit, to tell them the train was running very late and it looked like being nearer ten o’clock than seven before she could report. She had been assured by the guard that she had plenty of time. But the queue for the only public phone box in the station was long and she eventually gave up and turned back towards the platform just in time to see the guard slamming shut the doors and the first puffs of steam appearing. Frantic, she raced down the platform, alongside the already moving train, until she found a door not quite shut. She managed to jerk it open and throw herself inside, landing at the feet of a handsome young airman who leapt up gallantly to close the door and help her to her feet. 

The compartment she had catapulted into was full but the train was crowded, as all wartime trains were: there was no point in her setting off to hunt for a seat. Thanking him for his timely assistance, she asked demurely if he would mind if she sat on his kitbag which was tucked into a corner of the compartment, the luggage racks being both full to overflowing. RAF men were renowned for their style and polish, never more in evidence than when a lady was present. He assured her that he would not dream of such a thing and ceded his seat to her, assuming the position on the kitbag himself. 

They began to chat. The train obliged by stopping several times in the middle of nowhere and maintaining, when it did move, an average speed of no more than twenty miles an hour. By the time it meandered into Peterborough, they knew a great deal about each other and liked what they heard. Home addresses were exchanged as being the most reliable. The process of letters going to their homes and being sent on to wherever they were at the time would slow the correspondence down but it was the best they could do. Neither of them voiced or perhaps even thought of the fact that one or both of them might be dead soon. The threat of invasion was in everyone’s minds and the task facing the navy and the air force to defend Britain’s huge coastline was urgent and desperately dangerous. The blitz had already begun in London and no centre of population was safe. But they were young, neither of them yet twenty, and they were falling in love. That seemed much more real and exciting to them as they reluctantly parted in the September sunshine on Peterborough platform.

Over the next five years, they would see very little of each other: snatched twenty-four hour passes spent in rundown guesthouses somewhere close to where their paths happened to be crossing; missed opportunities when letters went astray or were delivered too late; crackly telephone lines that permitted only short, half-heard conversations. Only twice in all that long war, the chance to spend a few days together with time to linger over cups of tea in a forlorn seaside café, huddle together on a stormy winter beach, walk and talk dreamily of the future they hoped to have together – when the war was over, when the boys came home, when bluebirds instead of bombers flew over the white cliffs again. By the end of the war, they were engaged. With victory in Europe assured at last, it seemed safe to make the public announcement, a testament of hope which would have seemed too much like tempting fate before then. 
   
   
They married in 1947. He used his wartime experience as flight engineer to land a job in the Rolls-Royce aero-components factory near his home town of High Wycombe. It came with a house – a coveted perk in the post-war years – a simple ground-floor flat in a hastily erected housing estate. 

My earliest memories are of a black and white photo of Rose in a swimsuit, sitting on a mat, looking over her shoulder at the camera. Her shoulder blades were as sharp as axes, her back a scrawny cedilla, the buttocks on the mat no bigger than the cabbages my father dug out of the garden. She remained pin-thin all her life and often deprecated her figure but only with a coyness that belied any real concern. She wore her thinness with elegance, even in the era of the full-busted and curvy-hipped Hollywood stars of the fifties. Of course, in the sixties, she was made. She said the advent of Twiggy as a supermodel showed there was a God and prayers do get answered.  

Other early memories, predating those of actually meeting her, are of ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’, just like in the song. They came with red blobs of sealing wax and bold black writing on both sides. I have no clear memories of what was in those parcels, only the excitement of seeing them delivered and helping to unpick the string and roll it into little balls to put in the string tin. String had been a wartime luxury and possibly still was in the fifties. The brown paper was smoothed out and folded to be stacked away in the sideboard. Mum would start some new knitting soon after the arrival of a parcel so probably wool, pins and patterns featured a lot. There might have been food items, I suppose, but I was never much interested in food as a child. In return, Mum rolled up the Dundee Courier and the Sunday Post into a tube and posted them off to Rose every couple of weeks.  

It was not until I was seven that the adventure of driving down to see the fabled source of the parcels, the stick-figure of the photograph, was mooted. Mum and Dad argued for hours about it. Mum imagined all sorts of disasters in the old car, at the very least freezing to death since it had no heater and let in rain at most of the windows and ‘muck and gutters’ up through the floorboards, Dad hotly defended his beloved ‘old jalopy’ which he declared would never let us down. 

They were both right. We did make it over the switchback Roman road through the Yorkshire moors and down into the heart of England, through endless picturebook-pretty villages without a flushing toilet to their name. And we did almost freeze to death one night when a mist came down and we could not find our way. Dad turned the car into what he thought was a lay-by, switched off the lights and said we would have to wait till morning to see where we were. As the cold, damp night progressed, we all became aware of a dreadful smell. At first, it was presumed it was Dad – it usually was. He denied it but wound down the window to let the smell escape. The stench immediately intensified. We choked and begged him to close it. In the morning, at first light, we could make out a huge pile of steaming dung right in front of the car, touching its radiator. Dad had mistaken an open farm gate for a lay-by.

It was but one of many traveller’s tales that our trips to see Auntie would spawn over the years. 
   
   
   
    




1



The Book Fest Bore

posted 24 Oct 2016, 14:03 by Fran Brady

Do you have a writing routine?

Yes, indeed.

I get up every morning at 7.00 am. By 8.30, showered, exercised and breakfasted. I am at my desk. It is bare except for my computer in which I have filed a clear summation of yesterday’s writing and a plan for today’s tasks and targets. The first two hours will be spent on research. I have apportioned myself six websites to scrutinise today, relevant chunks to be copied and fielded into my research files and fresh links to new sites to be noted for future exploration. I file these in my research folder, under the file ‘future leads’. As I finish with each website, I cut the link address from ‘future leads’ and paste it into ‘completed leads’.

At 10.30, I stop. If I am mid-website when the time comes, I leave this site in future leads but add an asterisk to the address. I will begin with this site tomorrow morning, removing the asterisk before I paste the address into my browser.

Fifteen minutes are allocated for a comfort break and coffee.

At 10.45, I open the summation of yesterday’s writing and I read the last three pages I wrote. I feel my brain clicking out of analytical and into creative mode. I read the plan I drew up for today’s chapter: its purpose and its pace; its characters and dialogues; its events and timeframes. 

At 11.00, I open a new document, click on the caps lock and type ‘Chapter Twenty-two’. The world goes away; the clock ceases ticking; the post clatters through the letter-box unheeded; Dog pads in and out of the room unnoticed. Occasionally, I hold my breath, shake my head, purse my lips, wrinkle my brow and tut under my breath. There is always one character that refuses to stay within his/her boundaries, wreaking havoc into pre-planned dialogue and behaving in an erratic unscripted fashion. My editor tells me it is such characters that endear my novels to the reading public but I find them exhausting and intensely irritating. I have to keep rewriting my prescriptive character study and my detailed plot plan.

At 1.00 pm, I stop writing, save my work and put the computer to sleep. I whistle up Dog, don appropriate outdoor gear and take my half-hour constitutional along the towpath. I switch my writing brain off, I throw sticks into the canal for Dog, I chat to fellow dog-walkers, I buy my daily paper and I return home hungry. I feed Dog and I heat up soup and slice bread for myself. I allow myself ten minutes rest in an armchair with eyes closed and mind freewheeling. I may even sleep for a few minutes.

At 2.00 pm, I return to Chapter Twenty-two. The morning’s work is re-read and amended, nothing major, just some tinkering. By 2.30, I have re-immersed and re-engaged my descriptive, creative gear. Once again, the world goes away. Twenty-two cruises to a halt at 4.00. I re-read the entire chapter, tidy it up and write a full summary of it, which I store in my synopses folder, under ‘full by chapters’. I prepare tomorrow’s work schedule: the websites I will research; the pace and plot of tomorrow’s chapter.

4.30 is the time of my favourite part of the day: afternoon tea and scones. I take it in the conservatory, watching the birds and squirrels.

I return to my desk at 5.30 and spend the next two hours engaging with the world: I respond to correspondence, both actual and electronic. I sustain my social media persona with a few pithy posts and witty tweets. I send empathetic emails to family and friends. I make excuses for not attending events and gatherings. I read a few interesting news items. I smile at a few jokes. I flinch some horrific happenings.

At 7.30, I disengage from the world. I make a gin and tonic and sip it whilst the microwave radiates heat into my ready-meal dinner. I pick up the prizewinning novel I am currently wading through and take it and the meal into my sitting-room. I eat and read for an hour. At 10 pm I stop reading and listen to Classic FM for an hour while I sip hot chocolate, laced with a slug of brandy.

At 11 pm, I go to bed and sleep for eight hours.

In this way, I write seven chapters a week and complete a full length novel every six months. My list now stands at thirty-five published novels, all of them bestsellers.

 

The interviewer glances nervously at her watch. Book Festival events have to stick tightly to time schedules. One hour, not a minute more. The queue for the next event is already snaking round the grass quadrangle of Charlotte Square.

This famous, successful novelist has always refused Festival invitations but his year, he has given into pressure from his agent to do this one gig. She had expected him to be shy, slow to get going, short on answers, long on silences. In fact, he is like a robot whose on button, each time it is activated by a question, produces a programmed response that cannot be interrupted. A very long and very boring response which is joining with the stuffy heat of the tent and the pre-lunch torpor of the audience to create a soupy, stagnant, suffocating weight. Restless coughs and shuffles are giving way to deep sighs and low-key snores. There won’t be time for audience questions – but she doesn’t think they will mind.

 

TRAVEL ACROSTIC

posted 20 Sep 2016, 06:02 by Fran Brady   [ updated 21 Sep 2016, 13:42 ]


T is for

Time to go; to move on

To set out; to say goodbye

Look back in anger or regret or relief

Forward with fear or hope, maybe a plan

 

R is for

Running way; casting off the old

Racing, embracing the new

Shaking off the past, seizing the day

No hesitation, full of the future

 

A is for

Anticipating all that lies ahead

Anxiously checking passport and tickets

Awaiting the moment of take-off

Alive to the taxi-ing throb of the plane

 

V is for

Vast banks of billowing cotton-wool cloud

Vague sense of floating immobile

Above earth, below heaven, suspended in time

Illogically feeling very safe in the air

 

E is for

Expectation, intense to the point of fear

The ping-pong announcement for seatbelts again

The swoop and the slipstream thrusting you back

Surrender control and make peace with your God

 

L is for

Land with a rattle, a bump and a thump

Tearing up the tarmac with terrifying speed

Running out of runway, preparing to die

Until the mundane moment of arrival.

A Kiss is Just a Kiss

posted 14 Sep 2016, 04:36 by Fran Brady

Did you kiss? Was he good? They crowd round me, agog
Are you going to see him again?
That collision of lips and bumping of noses
That exchange of saliva and breath
And that’s that for this thing called a kiss?

What does it mean, that cross at the end of a text?
Just a symbol of lighthearted fun?
Courting favour, taking liberty way beyond fact?
Impudence, maybe betrayal
And that’s that, Judas knew, with one kiss

Who was he? Do I know him? My memory of last night has holes
I drank too much, he was too smooth
His kiss was too rough, his demands without pity
My lips are bruised - and my thighs and my pride
And that’s that, party girl, one night stand

MOWAH! She kisses the air at the side of my head
Mowah to you too, I reply
Keep in touch, ring me soon, don’t leave it so long
No, of course not, we mustn’t, no way
And that’s that for another ten years

Kiss Great-Aunt Mary - come on, there’s no choice
Smell talc and feel papery skin
Butterfly lips brush over her cheek
Barely touching, withholding a breath
And that’s that for another New Year

Here it comes, the dread moment, unwritten law
A date must always end in a kiss
But this is new; it feels good; I want more
There is promise; excitement is rising
And that’s that? Is he IT? Can this be?

Virgin-white dress, whispered vows, well-dressed guests
Laughing toasts, endless selfies and smiles
First married kiss, all alone, wedding night
Ready for passion, intense escalation
And that’s that - till we start up again!

Smell that smell! As she thrusts it at me, I recoil
My comfort zone seriously breached
It is snuffling, eyes bossing, new life in my arms
Kiss his head, smell that smell, breathe it in
And that’s that, for a lifetime, I’m hooked

Day of condolence, black clothes and sad singing
Comfort from memories, strength from shared love
Last opportunity, loss for eternity
Cold farewell kiss seals a lifetime of love
And that’s that. I have loved. I have lost

OPEN MIC

posted 18 Aug 2016, 16:02 by Fran Brady

This piece, which I read at Howden Park Centre in Livingston on 19th August 2016, is from my fourth and forthcoming novel, ‘The Ghost of Erraid’, which is set in the 1920’s on the Isle of Mull. It revolves around a lighthouse keeper’s family, recently arrived on the island. The voice is that of twelve-year-old Liza. 

 

The Northern Lighthouse Board supplies furnished accommodation and carries out regular inspections without warning.  A man from the Board is coming to inspect the family’s cottage the following day . . .

   

 

    ‘We’ll be fine, Mother. I polished the doorstep and knocker a couple o’ days ago. And everything else is  . . .’ I glanced round the kitchen. It looked fine to me.

    ‘What are you talking about?’ demanded Father. ‘What’s the Board man looking for?’

   Mother made an effort to sound calm. ‘It’s just to make sure we’re looking after the stuff they’ve given us. Like Liza says, it’s nothing to worry about.’

     Father too looked round the room, trying to see it with an inspector’s eye. But he had no yardstick for this kind of scrutiny and quickly gave up. He stomped out of the house shouting over his shoulder: ‘God help the pair o’ ye if we fail this inspection.’

    ‘Will I put on my ‘dirties’ apron, Mother? Are we going to be cleaning?’

    ‘No, we are not,’ she said with a defiant tilt of her head. ‘Inspection indeed! I don’t need any pipsqueak pen-pusher from the Board showing me how to run my house.’

    ‘But Father said . . .’

    ‘And what does he ken about keeping a house clean? All he ever does is make a mess of it with his socks and drawers flung on the floor and his cigarette ash everywhere.’

    She was brave was Mother – when Father wasn’t there.

 

   For all her bravado, she soon had me black-leading the range and shining the knobs of its four little doors while she changed the bed linen and polished the furniture. She had us up with the lark next day, on a dark, dingy November morning. I would not have believed there was anything left to dust, wash or polish but, as Gerry and I sat supping our porridge at the table, she was rubbing away at the carvings on its legs with an old toothbrush.

   ‘Now, finish up your breakfast and get ready to go out,’ she said.

   ‘Where to?’ asked Gerry.

   ‘Just out to play. I want you two out of the house before the man comes.’

   ‘What for?’

   ‘So that I can get the last minute jobs done and know one of you won’t undo them again before he comes.’

   ‘What sort of jobs?’

   ‘Tidying the shoe-rack, sweeping the floor, going over the windows with the shammy . . .’

   ‘Why is it called a shammy?’ asked Gerry.

   ‘How would I know? Get on with your porridge. I’m clearing this table in two minutes whether you’ve finished or not.’

   ‘Is it because it’s like a kiddy-on thing?’

   ‘What are you talking about now?’

   ‘Like when we say something’s a sham. Is it a sham for a duster?’

   ‘Oh, Gerry . . .’

   ‘Stop pestering your mother!’ Father burst through the chenille curtains that covered the bed recess like an actor on cue. His voice, always rough, was like a dog’s bark first thing in the morning. He strode across the floor and gave the side of Gerry’s head a backhand slap as he passed on his way out to the ‘lavvie’. Gerry squawked as if mortally wounded and dropped his spoon into his bowl. Milk splashed over the table and few tiny porridge lumps slid down one of the recently tooth-brushed legs.

   ‘That’s it.’ Mother seized both our bowls, although I still had over a half of mine to eat. ‘Get away out NOW! No arguments. Coats on and OUT to play.’

   ‘Dinna panic, Mother. The house is like a palace. You’ll pass with flying colours. Bound to.’

   ‘Who’s panicking?’ squeaked Mother.

   I dragged Gerry, still sulking about his thick ear, along the path. ‘Let’s go an’ see Seamus. Maybe we can take him out for a walk.’

   By the time we returned the big dog to his garden, the inspector had left.

   We went cautiously along the path to our own house. I tried the handle carefully but the door was locked.

   ‘How can we no’ get in?’ demanded Gerry. ‘I’m wantin’ my dinner.’

   ‘Look out!’ I snatched his arm and dragged him sharply away from the house as the window exploded into a shower of splintered glass. I felt needle-sharp rain on my face and cried out again. Something heavy struck me full on the chest, knocking me off my feet. I went over backwards, still clutching Gerry’s arm and pulling him on top of me. Another missile flew over my head, missing it by inches.

   I lay winded on the path while Gerry struggled to his feet, screaming like a banshee. Then the whole row of keepers’ houses seemed to erupt with women, children, dogs and even a couple of curious cats. But of Mother or Father there was no sign.

   I staggered to my feet and took in the sight: our kitchen window completely smashed; and three cast iron pots lying among the broken glass.

   ‘Oh, no,’ I whispered. ‘The brass pots under the bed. We forgot about them.’ We had forgotten the Board-issue brass pots which Mother had consigned to a hiding-place under the bed when she had unpacked, preferring her own cast iron ones. The inspector must have demanded to see the brass pots, wanting to see how shiny they were. After more than a month gathering stour under the bed, they would be dusty and dim. We had failed the inspection and Father was furious. Furious to the point of throwing the cast iron pots out the window.

   ‘Where’s Mother?’ I lurched unsteadily toward the door. If Father was angry enough to smash the pots through the window, what might he have done to Mother?

    Even as I raised a hand to hammer on the door, it flew open. Father’s hand shot out and pulled me into the house.

    ‘Get away home the lot o’ ye!’ he yelled. ‘Have ye nothing better to do than stick yer damned noses in where they’re no’ wanted?’ He made a menacing step towards the gaggle of women and children and they backed away. He dragged Gerry by the hand, almost lifting him off the ground, and threw him into the house. I grabbed Gerry and bolted up the short passage into my bedroom. I shut the door and dragged a chair up under the handle. Then I put my arms round the hysterical Gerry and we fell on my bed, sobbing, in a tangle of wet coats, muddy boots and rumpled blankets.

 

 

 

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