100 word story: Dancing leaves

Painting by José Navarro LLorens

José_Navarro_Llorens_-_En_el_Jardín

That year they watched the leaves turn. So much wonder she saw through the child’s eyes, the first time she saw a falling leaf dance its spiral dance. At first, she smiled indulgently at the open-mouthed fascination, the hand stretched to catch the golden fairies. Then she too began to see the flames of red and orange in the afternoon sun, felt the magic in the autumn air kindled by the gently swaying trees. It almost made up for the pain of him not being there to see it too, for the child to cry with joy for her alone.

Snowing

A short story for Christmas.

1280px-Claude_Monet_-_The_Magpie_-_Google_Art_Project

Drizzle. Low sky. Grey cloud, or was it fog? What was the difference anyway? Both were wet.

“Will it snow this year?”

“I doubt it.”

“When’s it going to snow, then?”

“It isn’t.”

She said it with a finality that sounded unkind, even to the child who shut up and trudged along in a sullen silence. She hated this time of year, the hysterical jollity of people spending money they didn’t have on things nobody wants. She had managed to pay the gas bill. The house insurance loomed and there was nothing much coming in to refloat the budget.

“Me feet are wet,” the child muttered, dragging on her hand.

She felt like weeping. She knew he needed new shoes, didn’t they all? The two older ones got through shoes at the speed of light. If she bought new shoes would there be enough left over for a present?

“Nearly there,” she said and her voice was softer. She could feel the excitement in the slight pressure of her child’s hand.

They turned into the street and into the wind. The drizzle felt like a film of ice. The child let go of her hand and ran the last few yards to the dark red door with a sprig of holly stuck behind the door knocker. She tapped on the window. The door opened and the child rushed in, his cheeks red with pleasure.

“Nana!”

“And how’s my best little man?”

“Is it going to snow, Nana?”

His grandmother shook her head and smiled. “Over my dead body!” She looked at her daughter, her eyes bright and knowing. “The kettle’s boiled. I’ll just wet the tea.”

The child was already inside, darting here and there like an excited puppy though the room was small enough. She followed, taking off her wet coat and hanging it on the back of the door. Her mother touched it and pulled a face.

“It’s raining,” she said in explanation.

“You walked it?”

She shrugged. “He took the car and I couldn’t face…didn’t want to wait for the bus. Coat, Micky,” she said, but not sharply. Her mother’s house was already beginning to work on her nerves, smoothing her ruffled feathers. It wasn’t particularly warm, but it was cosy. The cat helped, curled like a great cushion in the best chair. It gave out as much heat as a small boiler. The gas fire was turned low, but there were draught excluders at all the doors, a curtain at the back of the front door, and the windows were tight, south facing and snug.

Her mother bustled in the tiny kitchen. The child touched the sleeping cat gently. She smiled. He was usually so brusque. He climbed on a chair and gazed at the pot of bulbs. The hyacinths were out, blue, white, and pink, and the scent was overpowering. A garland of silver tinsel had been wound between them, and a couple of golden baubles were tucked in the space in the middle.

The tea arrived and a plate of buns. Plain, no chocolate, no icing. Her mother didn’t hold with gussying things up. “Spoils the flavour,” she always said. The child waited to be invited, intent on the spectacle of the pot of hyacinths.

“Don’t they smell gorgeous?”

“Like perfume,” he said, smiling. “Why don’t you like the snow, Nana?”

“Because it’s cold and it’s wet, and if you slip on it you break your hip and spend Christmas in the hospital.”

“Oh.” His face fell and she knew he was imagining his nana tucked up in white sheets in a white room with nobody she knew.

“And the birds don’t like it either. They’ve nowhere else to go to get out if it. What do you think they eat when there’s snow on the ground?”

He didn’t reply. Deep in thought.

“And you,” her mother’s voice dropped and she was held in the knowing, gentle eyes, “are you well out of it?”

She shrugged, but the tears were close to falling. “He’s gone, if that’s what you mean.”

Her mother sighed. “He could have picked a better time, but then, if he’d been the thoughtful type…”

There was no need to finish her thought.

“It’s always hard at Christmas, but this year…”

Her mother patted her hand. “Ryan and Danny are old enough to understand. It’s about time they started lending a hand anyway.”

She was hardly listening. The two eldest boys were not understanding and were as like to take their father’s part as hers. Without the car Ryan wouldn’t be able to go to football. She was waiting for him to start whining about missing practice.

“And this one here is no bother.” Her mother pushed the plate towards the child. “Here, Micky, have another one before your mam eats them all.”

He giggled at the idea of his worried, pinched-looking mother stuffing her face, and took a bun, peeling the paper off carefully, and scraping the crumbs off it with his teeth.

“Just a bit of snow wouldn’t hurt though, would it, Nana?”

“You ask the birds. Go on! Look out of the window.”

Micky stood on the chair and cleared away the condensation with his hand, lingering over it to chase the drops as they coursed down the pane. He pressed his face against the glass.

“Can you see?”

In the tiny garden the single apple tree was covered in tinsel. Instead of glass baubles, his nana had hung bits of bacon rind and suet fat balls. The tree was full of birds. More birds than he had seen ever. Blue and yellow ones, a robin, noisy ones with feathers flecked in different colours. Micky stared, his eyes opened wide.

“A Christmas tree for the birds!”

She moved round the table to join him, put an arm around his shoulders. As they watched, the grey sky was no longer a veil of drizzle, and the ragged clouds seemed to fall to bits. The air filled with white flakes drifting. Silence fell and time slowed. Birds darted and the tinsel fluttered like soft wings.

“It’s snowing,” he breathed, and when he raised his face to hers, it beamed with happiness.

No heart

Procrastination strikes again. I had a notification from Elizabeth Frattaroli’s blog that it’s almost the deadline for entries to her flash fiction mini comp. What better spur than a deadline! I’d seen the prompt already, to write a story of 500 words maximum including at least three of the following words/phrases: dachsund, special summer, heart, pearl necklace, photograph. It needed that magic word ‘deadline’ to get the joices flowing.

The following story is a short adaptation of the story I wrote for my Creative Writing A level. It got an A+. I don’t even remember feeling proud of myself. I haven’t read it since, and that was a long time ago, but I remember it well. The old lady in the story was a neighbour and I embroidered a bit.

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Elsie Taylor took down the photograph from the mantelpiece and put on her reading glasses. The blurry face became that of Mark, her son, emigrated to New Zealand twenty-five years before and not seen since. She didn’t count the awful Christmas when he came back with that…woman.
The little house was silent except for the ticking of the clock. Mark smiled at her. Roses nodded in a vase. The last of the season. Last night’s high wind had stripped the solitary blooms left on the bushes. Mark said, You’d best be putting the heating on.
“I’ll do that right away,” she said. But she didn’t move. Mark smiled at her but he had never cared much about how she was, much less about her comfort. When his father died he sent a cheque for some flowers. His wife wasn’t well, he’d said.
She leant over and replaced the photograph in its place, took off her glasses and let her eyes slip out of focus. The world became a comforting blur. Absent-mindedly, she fingered the pearl necklace round her neck. Alec had given it her as an engagement present. There had been earrings too but she had lost one years ago. The pearls were cool to the touch, reminding her of Alec’s cheek. His memory was fuzzy now, like his portrait on the mantelpiece opposite Mark’s. The thought of him, her, them, young, not old and tired, brought tears to her eyes. Alec.
She shivered. The clock-ticking silence altered. Rain tapped then rapped hard against the window. The world outside became a grey blur. She pulled her cardie closer and thought about making a cup of tea. She dozed.
It was darker in the room when she opened her eyes again, and the cat was rubbing against her legs. Teatime. Mark smiled at her from his picture, quite clearly. She frowned. Alec remained in a hazy soup of pastel colours. Mark nodded. Go on then, put the kettle on.
She shook her head. It was too difficult to think straight. She was too tired to wonder about such things. What was, was. She had never been able to change anything, small wonder even the photographs on the mantelpiece did as they pleased. Alec had never wanted to know when she’d told him about Mark’s unsuitable friends. Said he was just growing up. Boys would be boys. Alec. She had loved Alec. Perhaps. Had she? He had been strong and steady. He just…sometimes he didn’t understand. He didn’t like to deal with the difficult things. Like Mark. She sighed and went into the kitchen. The cat followed and meowed. Her back complained when she bent to put the dish of food on the floor; her head spun when she straightened up.
The pain took her by surprise. She staggered to a kitchen chair. It came again, crushing her chest. That had been the problem with her menfolk—her last thought came through the pain, an illumination. They’d had no heart.

The Eye-Dancers

It’s been a while since I last posted. Been busy writing and editing, and doing a bit of reading too. This is the book of a blogger friend, YA and also fantasy in a way, that has intrigued me for months now. Well done, Mike Fedison; you’ve written a book about children that gave this adult food for thought.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Dancers-Michael-S-Fedison-ebook/dp/B00A8TUS8M

I had already gathered, from following the author’s blog that, although the boys who feature in this story are quite young, this wasn’t going to be a straightforward comic book adventure. In fact, the action is secondary to a thoughtful exploration of the individual motivations, personal problems and anxieties of the characters.

Using the vehicle of solving a kidnapping mystery, each of the boys takes a burden of small personal dramas with him into a parallel universe, which becomes more a setting for their voyage of self-discovery rather than the whole point of the story. They all have problems that are part of growing up, dealing with family tensions, and coping with social and physical stigmas. The boys don’t behave as a pack, and I think the author has very cleverly chosen a disparate group of not really close friends. Each character is essentially alone with his anxieties, and only at the end of the story, by learning to overcome these anxieties does each one discover the true meaning of friendship.

The pace of the story is always measured; the first part especially, which describes each boy’s home background, is slow to gain momentum. Throughout, to show character growth, each of the boys spends much of his time alone in introspection. Although this slows the action, the end result is a more satisfying read.

The characters themselves are likeable, touching even, though in some aspects they come closer to metaphor than flesh and blood. There’s the ‘Brains’ who nobody likes, the aggressive one who has trouble controlling his violent streak, the joker who just wants to be liked, and Mitchell who is lumbered not only with rowing parents but a speech impediment.

Given the subject, the whole story could have been rather preachy, as each boy faces his personal demons and overcomes them. But the tone is not at all moralising, and the author has a light touch with the theme of growing up. Joe, the aggressive one, for example learns to control himself, not by having the daylights beaten out of him, but by understanding Ryan’s quiet courage. Brainy Marc learns the limitations of his rational explanations, not by having stronger intellectual arguments thrown at him, but by accepting Mitchell’s simple statement that you can’t explain everything with handy theories. The boys learn a lot about one another and themselves, and all four appear at the end as more likeable, balanced human beings.

The least convincing aspect was the mystery of the ‘ghost girl,’ which to my mind leaves a lot of loose ends. The girl herself understands an awful lot about the paranormal, psychic messaging, and the workings of parallel universes for a seven-year-old, but is surprisingly inept when it comes to conveying vital but very simple information to the boys trying to rescue her.

But that aspect of the story is almost incidental. The real story is about self-discovery, growing up, and learning how to be a friend. This is a book any parent would be happy to have their child read. Unlike many books with a ‘message’ aimed at the young teen age group, this one takes the subject of friendship, unhitches it from any religious connotations or motivations, and goes right to the heart of the notions of tolerance, selflessness and responsibility.

 

What’s in a name?

I have been reading a lot lately about names. Which are acceptable, and which names are confusing. To be honest, I’m confused. A publisher’s reader once told me he found the names of my characters confusing because they were taken from the Bible and mythology. What I never understood was how a real name can be confusing. There are some very strange assortments of letters that are stuck on real live babies and called a name, but mine did not fall into this category. Would he have been confused by Jayden or Beyoncé, I wonder?

Names are important, for real as well as fictional characters, and I have always been of the opinion that a name should mean something. I have terrible problems taking seriously names that don’t mean anything, other than a random assembly of vowels and consonants that somebody’s parents thought sounded cute, or original.

There was a time when boys would quite often be given their mother’s family name. Now girls are given them too. Fine. But when the surname you give your child isn’t anything to you at all? We had a child stay with us a couple of years ago who went by the name of Liberty. Her brother was called Tillerman. Apparently Tillerman was not the family name of anyone they were related to, and Libo (for as such she was known in our household) had no idea in which catalogue her parents discovered her brother’s name. Same for the Kellys and Rileys and Ryans. Why? Why not Gilhooly or Higgins or Slattery? It isn’t the fact of using family names as given names that bemuses me; it’s the giving of somebody else’s family name.

Perhaps it is because we have got used to playing fast and loose with the names we give to our children, that naming of fictional characters has reached dizzying heights of daftness. Since some parents seem prepared to go to extreme lengths in the search for originality, fantasy names often share the same apparently random effect, but with the addition of replacing most of the vowels with apostrophes. But should we assume that in our fantasy worlds, the same custom of naming children by anything you fancy prevails, especially when so many fantasy worlds have very strict rules about most things, rules which have often not changed for thousands of years? Is it not much more likely that the naming of children follows a logical pattern, and the names have a meaning in the fantasy language?

Is it likely that the mother of our fantasy hero, Queen K’thel’knth would call her child Jade? Or Dane or Jace or Jim? It might simplify things for the reader to have the hero called Jim, but isn’t it much more logical that she would call him or her K’thel’pnth, or P’thn’knth, or some other unpronounceable monstrosity? Also, is it likely that Jace would have a sister called Killyuggoneonia, or a brother called Ashgabushkash? Would they not make a more likely family called Jace, Dane, and Jade, children of Queen Jenna and King Drake? Consistency is the key. Consistency and pronounceability.

Meet K'ht'phlip otherwies known as Flip
Meet K’ht’phlip otherwies known as Flip

You gotta have a dream

This winter has been difficult for all sorts of reasons: the editing process on my book grinding to an inexplicable halt just before it was completed, a child getting cold feet about university at the last minute and deciding to take it easy at home instead, the usual idleness of some of her siblings, a nasty bout of flu, a sprained back muscle, the spring that refused to spring. Add to that the perennial cash shortage, the daily grind that gets more grinding, the list of house repair jobs that gets longer, the prospect of yet another year without a holiday, and you’re looking at a depression in the making.

But the weather is changing, the buds are opening despite the overcast skies and the air is really quite warm. It’s time to take stock. My grandmother would have called it counting my blessings. I prefer to call it dreams achieved.

My dreams started small. When I was little it was to have a cat. The farm next door was crawling with cats and kittens. By dint of encouraging them into our yard, two kittens were forever on the doorstep, looking in through the kitchen door. It wasn’t long before my mother’s heart softened and they were both officially adopted.

When I was twenty, my future husband and I talked about how we imagined our life as a couple. We took our first holiday together in Paris and decided that was where we would live. Our first apartment together was slap bang in the shadow of the Pompidou Centre.
While we were fixing on Paris, we also planned how many children we would have. We decided then that we would have five. My husband is a great one for organisation, making lists and crossing items off as they get done. We had four children crossed off the to do list when I was diagnosed with something funny. The doctors weren’t sure what it was, but I was told I must absolutely not have any more children, as they had no idea how my system would react to a pregnancy. We honestly did our best to follow medical advice, but child number five managed to sneak in anyway. The pregnancy was fine and despite a panic at the end, she was fine too.

Although Paris had been the first dream destination, I hankered after a warmer climate, so we moved south.

Next thing to hanker after was a dog. Not just any dog. I had always wanted a Lurcher, but the tradition of hunting with Lurchers doesn’t exist here. Then I read about the atrocious way Galgos are treated just over the border in Spain, and I knew I wanted to adopt one of them. It became an obsession, maybe because I had resigned myself, after a miscarriage, to the sad reality that the baby-raising era was over. I needed to baby something else that needed a lot of affection to get over a rough start in life. So we got Finbar.

With the affective problem sorted out, I began to think tentatively about my old dream of really becoming a writer. I started to write on a regular basis, rather than in the fits and starts that had been the only way to fit it in over the years of bringing up children. Last summer my first book was accepted by a publisher. I have plenty more in the pipeline, so I have started to think of myself as a writer, not a wannabe writer.

Apart from going to live in Moomin Valley in a house like Moomintroll’s, with stabling for a talking horse, I can’t think of many dreams that haven’t come true. In terms of economic success, I’m afraid we are a couple of losers. There are lots of things that many people would consider necessities that we haven’t got, but I suppose they were never on the dream list. We never dreamed in terms of how much cash we would have, how many bathrooms, or what we would do with the five children if they refused to ever grow up and leave home.
There is at least one dream left. It would be too sad of there weren’t. We would both love to have a small stone house in the countryside, with an orchard and plenty of space for big dogs to play in. By the time we are in a position to realise that particular dream, we will both be so decrepit that we might well decide that it would be more sensible to stay in town close to the shops and the hospitals! But the important thing is that the dream is there.

In the words of the song, you gotta have a dream, or how you gonna have a dream come true?